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 Tuesday, 17 December, 2002, 11:18 GMT
Endgame in student fees battle?
Student fees protest
Students say they have won the first round on fees
Up-front top-up fees are now "dead in the water" says a student leader - and the argument has moved on to the detail of how a graduate tax might be applied.

Will Straw, president of the Oxford University Students Union, says that "the next test" will be about how students pay for higher education after they graduate.

And he says students will be opposed to any graduate repayment scheme which is based on paying off a specificied amount of money.

Will Straw
Will Straw says increasing up-front top-up fees is "dead in the water"

"Paying back fees after graduation, as in Australia and Canada, still means that students are in debt," he says.

Instead he says a more preferable scheme would be a graduate tax, which will contribute funds into general taxation, rather than refunding an individual student loan.

This would make higher education free at the point of use, with no individualised debt.

The students argue that any price tag on the cost of a university course, which has to be re-paid, will continue to deter young people from poorer backgrounds.

'Direct action'

And in particular, if there were to be price differences between universities and individual courses, this would again make ability to pay, rather than academic ability, a factor in student applications.

The Oxford students are also opposed to an optional range of repayment methods, such as allowing students to pay up-front rather than through tax, arguing that this would again be likely to favour better-off families.

Student leaders have had their confidence boosted after the government appeared to back away from introducing top-up fees to be paid before entering university.

"It shows that concerted direct action can have an affect. People are now listening," says Will Straw.

The government is set to present its review of higher education funding next month.

And if it opts for any form of student payment after graduation, it will mean a very large interim funding gap.

Funding crisis

The expansion of student numbers will soon mean that there will be over a million full-time undergraduates.

Under a graduate tax scheme, these would need to be funded through university, and there are estimates that it would be over a decade before the tax payments would balance the expense.

This has raised speculation that the government will seek private sector partners, such as banks or insurers.

And there have been suggestions that the government could raise money through a "university bond" which would offer investors a secure return - presumably to be paid from the future graduate taxes.

But interwoven with the student funding question is the underlying crisis in university funding - with vice-chancellors saying that higher education faces a 10bn shortfall.

And any resolution of student funding will need to be linked to a substantial increase in university income.

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Analysis: Mike Baker

Different approaches


See also:

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