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 Sunday, 19 January, 2003, 14:35 GMT
Students 'to face 21,000 debt'
Student protest
The government can expect a lot of resistance
Students can expect to face debts of 18-21,000 when they leave university in future, says Education Secretary Charles Clarke.

The government is due to publish controversial proposals to allow universities to charge students top-up fees of up to 3,000 for their studies.

Up-front fees of 1,100 a year will be scrapped, and graduates will not have to repay the new loans until their earnings have reached a certain level.

A new regulator will also be appointed to ensure that universities admit students from poorer families.

New proposals
Top-up fees of up to 3,000 a year - payable on graduation
Existing up-front fees scrapped
'Access' regulator appointed to monitor targets for greater inclusion

Mr Clarke told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost: "The type of debt we are talking about goes up from about 12-15,000 to about 18-21,000 - that kind of thing.

"The payback burden varies according to earnings later in life to about 60 a month for example for a civil servant, lower than that for a voluntary sector worker, so the paybacks I don't think are unreasonable.

"We will be raising the threshold at which you have to start paying back so there will be less requirement to pay back initially but there will be a debt there to serve."

Asked what kind of interest rate graduates could expect on their debt, Mr Clarke said details had to be thrashed out but he insisted it would be "significantly less than commercial rates".

He said the proposals would shift the financial burden from families and should not discourage students from poorer backgrounds from applying.

"Students should be seen as independent at the age of 18 and develop their lives on that basis and I am proud of the fact that I will be able to make an announcement to that effect later in the week," he said.

'Simply unfair'

Shadow education secretary Damian Green branded the plan to appoint a new "access regulator" as "social engineering" of the worst kind.

"The idea of a government-appointed regulator to tell universities who they can and cannot take is disgraceful," he told GMTV.

"It cuts away at academic freedom and it is simply unfair.

"There will be children who have worked hard for their A-levels, expect to get to university and are then told by this regulator 'sorry, your face doesn't fit'.

"That is social engineering of the worst kind."

But Mr Clarke rejected the criticism insisting: "No regulator will be a political commissar."

Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis said long-term debt would put many young people off going to university.

He said: "Saddling students with a mortgage-style 20-year debt creates a huge disincentive for higher education."

'Theoretical maximum'

Education department officials later said that the number of students incurring debts of 18,000 to 21,000 would be small and would include those who had to pay top-up fees, who did not receive help from their parents or from the state.

The figure touted by Mr Clarke was a "theoretical maximum".

The British universities umbrella group expressed doubt over the regulatory body which the government says will ensure access to top universities is equitable.

"At the moment it is difficult to see what value a regulator would add," said the Universities UK spokesman.

"They are already working hard to widen access to under-represented groups, as well as talking to all the other interested parties involved in widening access, such as schools and colleges."

Labour split

The issue of whether different universities should be allowed to charge different fees has reportedly led to splits in the Cabinet.

Mr Clarke admitted: "We have had a lot of debate in government because this has been a very tough question.

"Not all of my colleagues, or myself, are backward in coming forward with our argument. We are all passionate about education. We have all got strong views.

"So there has been a lot of debate and, I think, rightly and necessarily so."

Many university chancellors believe top-up fees will lead to a "two tier'" higher education system and will not solve the system's main scourge - under-funding.

More than 180 Labour backbenchers have also raised concern, signing a motion condemning all top-up fees.

  The BBC's Mike Baker
"These plans for universities are radical but politically risky"
  Education Secretary Charles Clarke
"Students should be seen as independent at the age of 18"
  Damian Green MP, Shadow Education spokesman
"This scheme will cause massive unfairness"

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