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Should I pay my kids' top-up fees?

Like many parents I have been doing some hasty, back-of-the-envelope calculations since hearing the Government's plans for university top-up fees.

I have two daughters, aged 16 and 13. They will now prove even more expensive than I had envisaged. Should I start saving now or should I send them out to earn as much as they can? I wonder how many hours' baby-sitting it will take to earn pound;3,000?

Or is it time to start loudly doubting the value of university education, in the hope they will decide instead to get a job at 18 so they can start supporting me instead of the other way around?

I start my calculations. My elder daughter will do her A-levels in 2004 but is already talking about a gap year. So long as it is no more than one year trekking in the Andes or saving the rainforest she should start university in September 2005.

That means she should just get in under the wire before top-up fees start in 2006. Once she has started she will be exempt from higher fees as any changes will only affect new entrants. So, she is likely to graduate in the summer of 2008 with debts of a mere pound;15,000 (in today's prices), based on a maximum student loan of pound;4,000 a year and annual fees of pound;1,100. I think she can afford that so long as she doesn't do anything daft like follow her uncles, aunts and grand-parents into teaching!

But what about my younger daughter? She won't take her A-levels (or will it be a British baccalaureate?) until 2008. So even if she goes straight to university, without a year out to "find herself", she will get hit by top-up fees.

By then, it is likely most vice-chancellors will be charging the maximum pound;3,000 (plus inflation) for popular courses. So she could face a total of pound;9,000-plus in fees plus pound;12,000 in student loans to cover living costs. Grand total: pound;21,000. The costs might get even worse if the pound;3,000 cap on fees is lifted.

Of course, the good news for parents is that we no longer have to pay any of this. It will all be down to our children to pay back once they have graduated and earn more than pound;15,000 a year. Or that is what the Government tells us. But they have not reckoned with the "it's not fair" factor which, as parents know all too well, is every child's response to changing circumstances.

It has already started in the Baker household. I have been grilled about how much it cost me to go to university back in the 1970s. The answer: nothing. No fees, no loans. I'm embarrassed to admit I didn't even have an overdraft.

Armed with this information, my daughters tell me it would hardly be fair for me to deny them a free university education too. I try telling them that I had a deprived childhood with no mobile phone, personal computer or Gameboy but that elicits little sympathy.

So, like many parents, I face a quandary. Do I pay their fees and loans so they can start adult life without debt or do I insist it is good for them to know the price of a university education so they make the most of it, rather than frittering their time away in the student bar?

And what about the younger one: should I at least pay the extra pound;1,900 a year bill she faces compared to her sister? After all, she will argue, the timing of her birth was nothing to do with her. In the end it will be a tussle between fair play and of making her realise as soon as possible that life just isn't fair.

Of course, I could take a different line altogether. I could remind them that their student loans are subsidised as they do not charge commercial rates of interest and that, even at pound;3,000, universities will be charging less than the full cost of courses. But I value my peace, so I won't try that approach.

The problem is that my daughters' demands won't stop at top-up fees. I go back to another set of calculations. If the stock market recovers, and if my pension scheme doesn't collapse, and if I downsize our house, could I manage to retire somewhere remote before my daughters leave university? Otherwise I fear they will demand to come back to live at home - because they cannot afford a mortgage.

Debts a turn-off, 27 Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent

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