Mandy Telford: A disaster for education that would penalise the poor

No to top-up fees
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MPs are being urged to vote for a system of reforms that are unfair on the student and will not deliver the money desperately needed by universities.

Many MPs and members of the public have great reservations about this policy because it appears to be in direct contradiction with a manifesto commitment not to introduce top-up fees. Others have reservations simply because this is a flawed policy.

The concessions that have come out in the past few weeks could have been seen as showing a government prepared to listen, if they addressed the concerns of the rebel MPs. The early-day motion by more than 150 MPs was to oppose the introduction of variable fees. The Bill MPs are voting on today will introduce variable fees; their concerns have not been addressed.

There is one main reason why MPs should vote against this Bill. This Bill is a disaster for the future of higher education and for future generations of students. The plans for variable top-up fees will create a market in higher education where students from poorer backgrounds will be put off applying for the more expensive courses. The Government's much-trumpeted success story of Australia proves the devastating effect top-up fees will have.

True, since the introduction of variable fees in Australia there has been an increase in students from poorer backgrounds applying to university. But there was a 38 per cent drop in males from poorer backgrounds applying to institutions charging the highest fees.

A rise to £3,000 a year might not sound much to some, but certain universities have stated their intent to charge much more in top-up fees. The latest attempt to appease rebel MPs, by promising not to increase the fee limit until the end of the decade, is nothing new. The Government is actually putting the wheels in motion for a fee rise at the first possible opportunity.

Defeating these proposals is about making a start on creating a fair university system where access is based on ability, not who can add the most to a university's coffers. I urge rebel MPs to stand firm in their opposition to variable top-up fees and vote against this Bill today.

If not, we will be on the fast track to the American system, where 30 per cent of students choose their course based on cost and fewer than 10 per cent of the students at Ivy League universities come from lower-income backgrounds, something we cannot afford to do.

Mandy Telford is president of the National Union of Students