Top-up fees: The alternatives

Americans pay a fortune for their education; Germans get theirs almost free. Australians pay a graduate tax; the British system's a mess. As the debate on college fees rages, we look at solutions from around the world
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The British student: 'I'm doing two jobs on the side yet I owe £15,000. Most students have debts of £5,000 a year'

Dalpreet Toor, 21

College: Kingston University, west London.

Course: BSc computing and business studies.

Pays: £1,125 tuition fees a year.

Student loan: £4,500.

This is a busy time for Dalpreet Toor, now in her third and final year, writes Nicholas Pyke. Her course is entering its most important phase, but Dalpreet is busy for another reason: the Christmas shopping season is here and Dalpreet, 21, spends 12 hours every weekend selling toys and alcohol at the gift counter of the Bentalls department store in the town centre.

She is paid £5.60 an hour for her shifts on Saturdays and Sundays. She also earns £4.50 working in the office of the university's student union for four hours a week. Despite a money-earning schedule that would have astonished students of a previous generation, she is already £15,000 in debt to the banks and the Student Loan Company.

"I've read articles about students saying they only owe £6,000, but I don't know where they get figures like that from," she says. "I would think that most students living in London would get debts of £5,000 a year."

While failing to keep her in credit, the part-time jobs have hurt her academic work. Dalpreet has an important assignment due in tomorrow and will miss the deadline because her weekend will be spent at Bentalls.

She insists that her tastes are not particularly expensive, although like most students she enjoys the pub. Her main recreation is television - partly because her money-raising efforts leave her so tired.

Rent is the biggest outgoing. Dalpreet spends £72 a week, for which she gets a bedroom in a shared house with two other students. That does not cover her gas or electricity bills, let alone the telephone. She lives near the university, so she has few travel costs apart from occasional trips to see her parents in nearby Ealing. She could ask them for money, but is reluctant to do so. "My parents don't study and I do, so I should be paying for it myself," she says.

Dalpreet and her housemates do their own cooking, so nothing goes on eating out. Nor, she says, does she spend much on entertainment. "Normally I'd go out once or twice a week. But at the moment I'm trying to steer clear of alcohol. In terms of debt, everyone has pretty much the same as I have got. I'm lucky, I don't have credit cards."

If top-up fees are introduced, students in her position will have to pay up to £3,000 a year, instead of the £1,125 at present. But they will only have to part with the money when they enter paid employment. And this, says Dalpreet, could be an advantage, despite the increased cost. "It would have been easier paying tuition fees afterwards, because I would be working," she concedes. The only good news is that her chosen career, teaching, means that her tuition fees will be waived for her fourth, post-graduate year of study. And such is the shortage of teachers in subjects such as IT, she will be eligible for a modest "training salary."

The Australian student: 'I don't like paying the money, but I will just have to deal with it'

Aaron Turner, 21

College: Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia.

Course: marketing and e-commerce.

Owes: £6,000.

Aaron, from Perth, is looking for work having finished a three-year commerce degree last month, writes Andrew Clenell. Once earning, he will have to pay about A$15,000 (£6,376) extra on his tax bill over the next few years to repay the government for his education. "Obviously, I'd like to pay less, it's a lot of money," he says. "But I'm sure one day you'll have to pay all of it up-front, just as international students have to now in Australia. I don't like paying the money but I just deal with it. That's the way it is."

In 1988, a Labor government introduced the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) under which, after education, all university students had to pay extra tax to pay off a proportion of the cost of their tuition. Back then, people paid less than $2,000 for each year they had studied. That figure rose to just under $3,000 a year in the mid-1990s. The Liberal-National coalition government in Australia, since its election in 1996, has progressively raised those fees much further, and put degrees in three bands of payment. For example, an arts and humanities undergraduate pays $3,680 for a year of study; a business or science student $5,242 and a law or medicine student $6,136 - the theory being that the more earning potential in a degree, the more the ex-student should pay back.

On Friday, the most substantial change to the system yet was made - with the upper house of the Australian parliament passing laws allowing universities to increase fees by up to 25 per cent, potentially causing an arts degree to cost $14,000 and a medicine degree $50,000.

Aaron and his fellow graduates will have to start paying back their debts when they earn $24,000 a year. But, under the new changes, graduates from 2005 will not have to start repaying until their wages are more than $35,000 a year. "What's happened up until now is the person who got out of uni and got their first job would have to pay it back straight away," says Aaron. "I think it would be better to earn more before you have to start paying."

HECS fees are paid back at a rate of 3 to 6 per cent tax on top of the usual rate, depending on income. The fees are also indexed to inflation, so the longer someone takes to pay them back, the more they cost. There is a discount for speedy repayment.

Aaron had another helping hand from the government which he does not have to pay back - a youth allowance of $150 a week to help him through his studies. This allowance is paid to people whose parents have low-incomes. But it is also paid to people who can prove they have made $15,000 in an 18-month period, to show they are independent of their parents. Aaron did this, filling shelves at a supermarket at night-time, and continued part-time in the job to earn extra money as he studied.

The German student: 'I'm completely against paying more than €220 a year in fees. The constitution includes the right to a free education'

Thomas Marciniak, 26

College: Humboldt University, Berlin.

Course: literature and linguistics.

Annual fees: £150.

Monthly grant: £491.

In his second-hand leather trench coat and scuffed trainers, Thomas Marciniak looks every inch the classic German student, writes Ruth Elkins. Like many of his colleagues, the undergraduate receives about €700 (£491) in student grants every month. Yet Thomas is on strike - because he has to pay annual tuition fees of €220 (£150) and in future, the state government wants him to pay even more.

Berlin's 135,000 students have been on strike for almost a month now. The city's three main universities are all but shut down and each new day brings more out to protest at €75m worth of planned cuts to the city's education budget and the spectre of tuition fees of up to €2,000 a year. The prospect of paying for higher education in a country where, until 1997, it was free of charge has come as a major shock for Thomas and his fellow students.

"I'm completely against paying even more fees," he says. According to him, the city government, which controls the budgets of the Free, Humboldt and Technical universities, is in effect robbing students to help pay off its current €49bn debts. The strike - which turned violent this week - looks like it will continue into the New Year. Critics, however, claim €220 is a small price to pay for the lavish benefits that go with being a student in Germany. Aside from heavily subsidised health insurance and massively discounted travel cards, students receive discounts on everything from Microsoft software to their phone bills. Even if you do borrow money - as is the case for around 25 per cent of German students, - the loan company that provides it has complicated rules and loopholes which mean students often pay back a fraction of what they initially borrowed. As a result, many people go to great lengths to become registered at a university. "It's worth it just for the money and discounts you get," said one man who recently jumped through several bureaucratic hoops to matriculate at Berlin's Technical University. The 24-year-old German, already a graduate from a British business school, wouldn't give his name and admitted he had "absolutely no intention" of attending lectures. With little tutor supervision and unlimited time afforded to students to finish their studies mean he could be unnoticed for years.

Such eternal students or Langzeitstudenten are one reason Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit, is standing firm on his promise to increase fees. But Thomas Marciniak, who has already been studying for four years and says he needs another four to complete his degree, says students who play the system are the exception. For many in Germany who claim the constitution includes a right to free education and to whom learnedness is sacred, the idea of higher tuition fees is abhorrent. "The introduction of fees has already meant a massive decrease of students from poorer backgrounds going to university," he says. "If we start going down the American road, things will get even worse."

The American student: 'I am paying $40,000 a year for my place at Harvard, but it is well worth the money'

Nicholas Smyth, 20

College: Harvard University, Massachusetts.

Course: political science.

Pays: £23,000 a year for tuition, board and lodging

Harvard is hard to get into, says Nicholas Smyth, but not difficult to enjoy once you're there. "I feel like I am getting a great education from a university that genuinely cares about my experience. I am guaranteed housing at the college for all four years, and I can change my mind over what classes to take five weeks into the semester. I also regularly have a great time with my friends, enjoying the nightlife and culture of Cambridge and Boston. I couldn't be more grateful to my parents for footing the bill, and I have great respect for people who need to come up with the money themselves."

Students at Harvard pay $40,000 a year (£23,225) for tuition fees, board and lodging (food and housing are provided by the college for all four years). Many state-run institutions in the US are more affordable, but still cost between $5,000 and $10,000 per year. "Many members of my generation - a record percentage of which is attending or planning to go to college - are taking out big loans to pay for this experience," says Nicholas. "The thing that most distinguishes Harvard from other places is its endowment of $19bn, which makes it the second richest non-profit organisation in the world, behind the Catholic church. Fortunately, much of this money is used to help students who could not otherwise afford Harvard's tuition. Forty-eight percent of my fellow students get grants from the college, and two-thirds of us receive some form of aid, including outside awards. I get a grant from the Heinz Company, through its employee corporate scholarships."

Some students must find their own room and board, and there are other expenses besides tuition fees. "Books cost $500 to $1,000 per year," says Nicholas. "Spending money is anywhere from $100 to $250 a month. There are grants available for books or winter clothes, and the college provides work study jobs at about $10 per hour for students in need."

His friends at Harvard and elsewhere who are running up debts - on average $20,000 upon leaving college - are less concerned with debt than with getting a college diploma, says Nicholas. "A bachelor's degree provides a financial advantage in the job market, to the tune of $22,000 more per year, according to a recent US census. This wage gap has been constantly increasing since the 1970s, and wages for people with college degrees make it a worthwhile investment. I think most of us expect that being in college - especially Harvard - will help us gain access to good jobs or prestigious graduate schools. Many of my room-mates plan to attend law school or business school. Some people are looking towards high salaries at investment banks, and graduate friends referred to the college as a "money factory". Nicholas Smyth hopes to do voluntary work with the Peace Corps for two years before going to law school.