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Just say no to top-up fees here

Charging students yet more for their university education is one English strategy that Scotland must avoid, says Henry Maitles

E'RE told that young people are apathetic and distrust politicians. Perhaps their attitude is easier to understand when we consider New Labour's manifesto pledge for the 2001 general election: "We will not introduce 'top-up' fees and have legislated to prevent them."

As we now know, this has been translated into policy for England in Education Secretary Charles Clarke's White Paper in March as being that "we will introduce 'top- up' fees and will legislate to do so". It will allow universities to levy pound;3,000 per year top-up fees, to be repaid by graduates when they earn pound;15,000 pa. This will make our pound;15,000 per year graduates the highest-taxed people in the land. Also proposed are maintenance grants - but only for households with a total income below pound;10,000.

Let's examine the arguments put forward by the Government. First, students leaving university with debts of perhaps pound;21,000 are "not a problem", although virtually all educationists maintain that this will deter would-be students from poorer families.

Second, it is claimed that graduates earn pound;400,000 more over their working lifetime than non-graduates, but the Government now admits this does not reflect the more recent situation, where in Britain 43 per cent (and in Scotland 50 per cent) of young people are in higher education.Indeed, recent reports suggest that arts graduates earn no more than non-graduates with similar A-level or Higher passes.

Third, the Government claims that the new system will give universities autonomy to control their finances and create a market of different fees for different universities and courses. However, there are clear fears that this will widen an already two-tier structure and that students from disadvantaged backgrounds will choose work-focused courses while the more academic ones will become the preserve of students from richer backgrounds.

Further, the proposed "access regulator", whose task is to ensure that universities don't discriminate against students from disadvantaged backgrounds, may find that there is a natural move by students whose parents can't afford the pound;3,000 fees towards the "cheaper" courses. There is a further worry. Once these reforms are implemented, there is a clear incentive for governments to call on universities to charge more, and state funding can be reduced in the future by allowing universities to raise fees.

But why should Scotland be concerned by what's going on in English universities? The answer is because there is little doubt that this will have an impact on us.

Some, realising that many English students may opt for Scottish universities, claim quotas will be needed. There is clearly going to be "drift" in terms of academic talent as some English universities will be able to use their extra fees income to pay higher salaries.

Finally, Scottish universities are clearly going to have to get more income to compete with universities south of the border.That will tempt some Scottish politicians, and indeed university principals, to argue for following the proposed English model. It will be claimed (in the New Labour jargon replacing Mrs Thatcher's mantra of "there is no alternative") that it is the only show in town.

Most educationists, MSPs, students, the unions and the general public are against this policy for Scotland. We need to ensure the opposition to it in the political parties' manifestos for May does not go the same way as New Labour's commitment did in England.

The pressure needs to be kept on the Executive to ensure it has the policies and the money to deal with the chronic underfunding of Scottish higher education - but not along the lines planned for England.

Henry Maitles is head of social studies education in Strathclyde University's faculty of education.

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