Workplace degrees plan to ease student debt

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The Independent Online

Thousands of students will be offered the chance to study for "learn-while-you-earn" degrees under the Government's long-awaited higher education White Paper published today.

Thousands of students will be offered the chance to study for "learn-while-you-earn" degrees under the Government's long-awaited higher education White Paper published today.

Ministers will announce plans for further education colleges to provide a range of courses aimed at helping young people to study while they hold down a full-time job. This is seen as the key to reaching the Government's target of getting 50 per cent of young people into a form of higher education by the end of the decade.

New courses will include a range of options, such as part-time degrees in subjects including business administration, technology and engineering. They will also be held at the student's workplace, if colleges and businesses can agree a timetable.

The courses are aimed at overcoming student fears of rising debts as a result of the package to be announced by Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, today. They are seen as the linchpin of moves to widen participation in higher education to young people from deprived backgrounds whose schools have traditionally failed to send many pupils to universities.

They are also an acknowledgement that many of today's youngsters want to work while their study. Last month, The Independent revealed a 30 per cent increase in the number of those between 18 and 24 opting to study through the Open University rather than go away on a traditional university course.

Academics believe this trend will continue as the impact of Mr Clarke's reforms kick in. He has already indicated that individual student debt could rise to as much as £21,000 under his proposals.

Key elements of today's package will include allowing universities to charge top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year over tuition fees. Up-front fees will be scrapped by this autumn, although those who want to, will be able to pay in advance. Means-tested grants worth up to £1,000 a year will also be brought back to help those from the poorest homes.

Mr Clarke will acknowledge that ministers and universities have failed to expand higher education "to the talented and best from all backgrounds".

In a foreword to the White Paper, he will say: "British universities are a great success story. Over the past 30 years, some of the finest brains in the world have pushed the boundaries of knowledge, science and understanding. So it would be possible to opt for a quiet life. To coast along, bask in previous success, shirk the need for reform. Though such an approach would be possible, I do believe that it would be wrong."

The proposals are certain to cause controversy, with backbench Labour MPs and unions representing academics voicing their opposition to the concept of tuition fees.

The learn-as-you-earn courses are supported by the Association of Colleges, which represents college principals, although they want their funding on an equal footing with universities so they can cope with the expansion. Judith Norrington, the director of curriculum, said colleges needed extra funding to manage the courses.

Many of the country's new universities, the former polytechnics, will also be expanding similar types of courses. Last week Margaret Hodge, the minister for Higher Education, also talked of two-year "foundation" degrees to help the Government meet its target.