Victoria Summerley: Mixing education with politics rarely ends well

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The Independent Online

Time was when you went to a school meeting about university entrance and what most parents wanted to know was whether their offspring could scrape into a Russell Group university with less than three As at A-level. These days, the annual UCAS heads-up is more like an edition of Radio 4's Money Box than a guide to higher education.

How much should I pay in maintenance grants? How does the loan repayment system work? And of course, the current unanswerable: how much is the course going to cost? Although the universities have already set the fees they want to charge, this won't be approved by the Government until the middle of the summer holiday.

This means that my daughter, who is in the lower sixth, and begins university in 2012, will start investigating institutions and courses after taking her AS- levels without knowing exactly what she will pay. Who else in the world offers something for sale without telling you the price?

One friend in higher education said to me: "It's as if the Government is making it up as they go along." It certainly seems that way to me. First, the Coalition's threat to withdraw funding from universities if they set fee levels too high seems to have had the opposite effect from that intended. They seem to be setting high fee levels in response, as a safety net in case their funding is cut.

Second, no higher education institution wants to charge lower fees than everyone else, as it will be seen as a signal that they are somehow inferior.

Higher Education minister David Willetts has said that any attempt by well-off parents to repay their child's debts early will be punished by an early repayment penalty. So no incentive there, then. You might as well tell your child to get a low-paid job and never have to pay their loan off at all.

How on earth does this make economic sense? Surely it's better to encourage people to repay, given that the cost of the loans system to the taxpayer is set to rise to £7bn by 2014-15.

I'm resigned to £9,000 fees. But this is also a sharp reminder that when you mix politics with education, it rarely results in the improvement of either.

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