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Disgust greets latest loan idea

Any future Education Secretary thinking of making students take out loans of Pounds 20,000 or more to pay for a university education will face stiff opposition.

"It's disgusting," was a common response from students at Lambeth College in south London to proposals for a new loan system put forward by university vice-chancellors.

"You go to university and work hard for three or four years to get a good job but then you would find yourself at an immediate disadvantage," said Serrika Joseph, 19, studying A-levels in English literature, sociology and human biology. "It could be years before you get a job and start paying off the money."

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals last week studied plans for a system of loans for maintenance and tuition fees that would leave an average student on a three-year course with a debt of Pounds 20,625.

The vice-chancellors are now finalising proposals on funding to be put to the inquiry into higher education being led by Sir Ron Dearing this autumn.

A statement issued at the end of their annual conference in Sheffield said the expansion of student numbers should continue but that loans, possibly covering tuition fees as well as maintenance, should be considered.

However, the idea that education is a right, not a privilege, is embedded in student culture and a transition to the American way of thinking, where young people expect to work part-time to put themselves through college, seems a long way off.

Sheena Kawa, 23, completed a two-year HND course in hotel management and catering and still owes Pounds 2,500 in student loans. But she is looking forward to starting a degree in nursing at the end of her present one-year access course. "As a citizen, I should be entitled to education," she said. "It should be free for all."

Like many similar institutions, Lambeth College plays a vital role helping to develop the skills needed to regenerate the local economy. It places great importance on its access courses aimed at providing an intensive one-year route to a university place.

It is difficult to see how talk of huge loans will encourage youngsters from the streets of south London to make the most of the educational opportunities on offer. (Brixton, desperately trying to get away from its trouble-torn past, is only a couple of miles away.) Ironically, it appears that those who face the biggest obstacles are the most determined and the least fiercely opposed to loans. Tory - or future Labour - ministers may take comfort from their views.

Jonathan Atkins, 28, spent several years in hi-fi sales and repairs before returning to an access course in electronics. He wants to do a degree in electronic engineering and pursue a career in microwave technology. "I left college at 18 to work and make money, but I realised about four years ago that it was a mistake. I think loans would put a lot of people off. But if you really want to do something, you'll do it."

Fellow student Edward Abbey, 19, said: "If you think the key to success is to get a degree, then it's worth owing Pounds 20,000. It wouldn't stop me. "

Rickie Haruna, 21, doing A-levels in government and politics, psychology and sociology, left school at 16. She is a single mother who walks 40 minutes to college every day with her three-year-old son. She became interested in why people get into crime and wants to become a criminologist.

"If you want something so much, you have to make sacrifices," she said. "If a Pounds 20,000 loan was the only way to get a degree, I would do it. I've got the chance to educate myself and get a good job. Nothing in life is free. "

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