Mark Steel: My tips on paying for university

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How are they allowed to suggest this mad scheme where they charge £36,000 for student fees? If you've got three kids heading towards university age it's like hearing on the news there's a report recommending that for the good of the nation your family is bankrupted for three generations. Or that the government is considering easing the pressure on higher-education spending, by forcing all parents of students to spend a year on the game.

And then the pundits and politicians sit around discussing it, saying, "For a place at an average university, such as Leicester or Bristol, if a parent turns two tricks a night with maybe some extra on a weekend, the revenue raised could cover 80 per cent of the costs so some ministers are very keen on this approach. However some backbenchers have pointed out that for more prestigious places such as Edinburgh or Oxford the amount of action required could result in a good deal of physical pain, with high rates of infection, and that may lose support with some middle-income voters."

From now on parents will check whether their kids are revising, and if they are they'll scream, "Stop that for Christ's sake! If you get any better than an F and you're offered a place somewhere I'm stuffed!"

And yet the justification for these cuts, we're told again and again, is that we can't leave the next generation "saddled with debt". So the only way to ensure that doesn't happen is to saddle them with debt.

This will be fair, apparently, because getting a degree makes it likely you'll earn more afterwards. But that assumes that the only point of education is to increase your earnings, and not that someone might learn a language, or learn about art or history or philosophy because these are brilliant things to learn about, and society will benefit from that.

Instead, learning equals money. If these ministers have toddlers, they must ask if they'd like a bedtime story, then say, "No darling, we're not reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Instead we're going to do today's Hang Seng Index. Now repeat after me cherub, Balfour Beatty up three at closing."

One advantage of the increased fees, said Lord Browne when he made these recommendations, is this will allow for "new providers". He probably means the universities will be free to seek funding by getting lectures sponsored, so philosophy students will be told: "Plato argued that no earthly body could be more than an imperfect copy of a perfect heavenly model. But that's because he'd never had a new orange-flavoured Crunchie. It's as crisp and fizzy as ever on the inside, but with a new orange meltiness on the outside. Hmm, it's not just confection, it's metaphysical perfection."

And astro-physics classes will be asked: "Do you know of a star that's suffered a catastrophic collapse in the past 12 months? Then call 0800 632 8989 NOW to see if your star is entitled to compensation."

Supporters of these fees try to find all sorts of ways to suggest they won't make much difference to those who pay them, because the payments won't start until the graduate is working and the interest rates will be low and so on. But however you calculate it, the family will have to find tens of thousands of pounds extra. It's like a protection racket saying they're willing to talk things over and when times are hard, they'll let you wait until next week and pay double, and they'll only burn your house down if you don't cough up for a whole month, so you'll hardly notice them really.

And this has all been recommended by Lord Browne, who's in an ideal place to understand the financial pressures on a typical family as he was the chief executive of BP. As he was making his report it was also announced that this years' bankers' bonuses are likely to exceed £7.3bn which, even at the highest rates suggested, would pay for a three-year-course for 200,000 students.

He also may have spotted that the Liberal Democrats now poised to pass this into law all signed a pledge to oppose any such rise in university fees. So the answer to this problem is to copy them. Every student should take out the loan, sign an agreement to pay it off, then never give them a bloody penny.

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