Top-up fees: Poorer students fear debt but think charges may focus minds

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The Independent Online

At Islington Green School, the inner-city comprehensive famously snubbed by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, for his oldest son Euan, anxious Year 11 students were learning exactly what top-up fees could entail for them yesterday.

Not only will they be among the first year to face the fees when they start university in 2006, they are from the less well-off social group that the Government is desperate to attract into higher education.

Esra Dogan, 15, who wants to study psychology or business studies, believes that poorer students could be put off attending university by the Government's proposals to increase tuition fees to up to £3,000.

"You may not pay it back until you are earning but it's still a debt," she said. "If the costs get too much then I would have to think again about going to university. A lot of people would worry about it. Just because you don't pay it off now doesn't mean it isn't real money."

Around 50 per cent of her school's 1,000 pupils qualify for free school meals - well above the national average - and only 27 per cent of pupils left the school with five good GCSE passes in 2002, compared with a national average of 52 per cent.

"It is a bit steep," said Rosie Fernyhough, 16, with a sharp intake of breath when she hears that a year of university tuition could cost up to £3,000 under the Government's plans.

Rosie is exactly the sort of student that the Government hopes to help with its new proposals for university tuition fees but she worries that she might have to drop out if the costs became too high.

Rosie, who lives with her mother, a single parent who works as a computer technician, appreciates that she would probably qualify for a grant and some reduction in fees, but still believes that fear of debt will put people off.

"I know they say that if you go to university you'll get a good job but there are no guarantees in life. You could end up £30,000 in debt. I know you wouldn't have to pay it back until you're earning but you'd still have it hanging over you."

But as the teenagers learn more about the scheme - and particularly its help for poorer students and the abolition of up-front fees - they begin to agree with the Government's new plans.

Most believe it is right that students should pay towards their degree tuition and reject calls for non-graduates to subsidise graduates by funding universities through taxation.

Ryaehanur Rahman, 15, whose father is a taxi driver and who hopes to study engineering or computer studies at university, welcomed the switch from charging parents up-front fees to asking graduates to repay their debt once they are earning more than £15,000.

"It will make people strive to do better things. Currently the burden is on your parents. This would make it the student's responsibility. If you mess up you will have no one to blame but yourself. My parents expect me to go to university and get on in life. The higher fees wouldn't change their minds. It would be up to me to pay it off, but you have to see it as an investment for the future."

Aida Johannes, 16, believes that charging graduates for their university tuition will make them study harder. "At secondary school there are always people not taking lessons seriously. If you have to pay a tuition fee then I think people will take university more seriously. If it was free I'm sure the same people would start courses and just mess about."

Sixteen-year-old Anita Odozi, who lives with her mother, a midwife, agrees. "University should be for focused people. No matter what the fees are, if you get to university you are almost certain to get a good job and get more out of your life."

Aida added: "Most of the things we get in life we have to pay for. We have to pay for food and water when we need them to survive. If someone gave you £40,000, the money would just run out in a few years, but if you got an education with it, that would last you a lifetime."

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