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'Ask pupils if they mind fees'

Schoolchildren as young as 14 should be asked whether they agree with paying for their university education, according to the author of a report on higher education funding in Wales.

Teresa Rees said that research carried out by her review group had already revealed that 16 to 18-year-olds would not be put off going to university by a deferred loan system for paying tuition fees. Younger children should also be asked for their views, she said.

More than 1,000 older Welsh pupils responded to the review group's questionnaire, and most said they would still go despite having to pay back tuition fees in later years.

Professor Rees suggested that students would be better off at university under a variable fee system, similar to the one being introduced in England next year.

Under the Rees review proposals, students would not pay back tuition fees - of up to pound;3,000 a year - until after they graduated. A graduate earning pound;20,000 would be expected to pay back pound;8.65 per week.

Professor Rees was addressing the Welsh Assembly's education committee, two weeks after the government was defeated on the introduction of variable fees in Wales. Her report, which cost almost pound;200,000, was published two days after the vote.

She warned of "scary stuff" for Wales if the Assembly does not introduce tuition fees and provide additional funding.

Welsh universities fear that a widening funding gap between them and their English counterparts will make them less competitive and lead to a "brain drain" of academics to more secure jobs across the border.

Professor Rees also urged the Assembly to lobby for an increase in the salary level at which graduates would start paying back their loans, from Pounds 15,000 to pound;17,000, saying the threshold was too low.

Meanwhile, First Minister Rhodri Morgan claimed that all-party talks to reach a compromise on the top-up fees fiasco should be finally resolved by the end of the month.

He said it would be the "ultimate insanity" if English students were queuing up to come to Wales as lecturers left.

The Assembly government will have to pay pound;14 million towards subsidising non-Welsh university students studying in Wales in 2006-7, which is the year when additional fees of up to pound;3,000 will be charged in England but not in Wales.

* nicola.porter@tes.co.uk

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