Tuesday, September 05, 2006

[NUS] Admission Impossible

The Issue

NUS believes that university education should be free for all. We believe that education is a right, not a commodity, and that as a public service individuals should not be made to pay for it. The introduction of tuition fees in 1997 ended the era of free education for university students. Average student debt increased from £2,212 in 1992 to £13,501 in 2005 and is predicted to reach £20,000 for entrants in 2005. Shockingly, average graduate debt is forecast to be £44,000 by 2023.

Increasing levels of debt have resulted in students from non-traditional backgrounds becoming less likely to enter higher education because decisions are increasingly dependent on bank balance rather then their ability and aspirations. Lifting the cap will most likely result in the richest students going to the universities that charge the highest level of fees. It will be these universities that are able to afford the most eminent staff and the most impressive resources. Meanwhile, students from non-traditional backgrounds will be most likely to congregate in universities that charge lower fees. It will be these students who will struggle to get by at universities with a smaller budget and less resources.

The New System

Find out about what the new system means for students starting university in 2006.

What we're up against

Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Education, was recently quoted as saying that students will “learn to love” top-up fees. Read NUS Presidents Gemma Tumelty’s Guardian article in response to his comments.

The background

Higher education was last a high-profile issue for Parliament during the furore surrounding the Higher Education Bill, which came into force on July 1st 2004. The Higher Education Act (as it is now known) abolished upfront fees and reintroduced a limited maintenance grant system, but at the same time it introduced variable fees of up to £3,000 per year. NUS found many allies amongst MPs during the battle to oppose this Bill. In particular, MPs were bitterly opposed to the concept of ‘variability’, whereby universities can charge different levels of fees. MPs also raised concerns at the prospect of prohibitive levels of student debt, and that the Labour Party had a manifesto promise not to introduce top-up fees! In fact, opposition to top-up fees was so strong that the Bill only scraped through the House of Commons by 316 votes to 311.

The future

In order to get the Higher Education Bill through Parliament, the Government had to promise that there would be a review by an independent commission into the impact of variable fees, and that any increase in fees would have to be approved by a vote in Parliament. This report, and the likely resultant vote, is expected to take place in 2009/2010. This will be the next key moment in the fight for fairly funded education. Depending on what the independent commission reveals, and how MPs vote, we could see the abolition of fees, the retention of the status quo, or a lifting of the cap and a complete free-for-all on university fees.

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