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In these parts, #163;45K is a lot

There is something rotten in the state of higher education. At 18, students should be eating Nando's, drinking cappuccinos and signing up for Topshop cards, not pound;45K of student debt. That is a lot of money in these parts. To put it in perspective, in a recent northern property auction that would have bought you two tenanted flats, a mezzanine drugs lab and a speedy boarding pass into the world of organised crime.

With debts of that magnitude, students need to choose the right course. Once upon a time it didn't matter what you studied because if you were poor - or were blessed with dead parents - you hit the full grant jackpot. But nowadays, since kids are pawning their futures to pay for their education, they need to find a more lucrative option than a combined degree in eyelash tinting and hair-dye management.

The most worrying thing about the current fees fiasco is that it is driving this year's students to accept any old shit, rather than wait for better - but costlier - opportunities next year. This is not conjecture; it is happening to my sixth-formers. Just before half-term one of my A- level students came to see me. He is a hard-working triple-A student who failed to get offers from his first five choices but has been snapped up - through Ucas Extra - by a university where 140 Ucas points and the ability to shuffle fridge magnets guarantees an unconditional place on an unprepossessing degree course. The gut-wrenching thing is that my student deserves better, but his parents are keen that he starts this September to avoid the astronomical fees that any delay would bring. For them - and many other working-class parents - it is a simple choice: this degree or no degree. This skirmish for last-minute bargains makes the whole Ucas application process feel like a late-night panic in front of the reduced- to-clear supermarket shelves. You frantically stack your trolley with fermenting yogurts, bruised bananas and dented tins of beans, when in fact all you really came in for was a nice leg of lamb.

Nor are these career dilemmas limited to our sixth-formers. Last week, three of my Year 11 girls declared that since university has been priced out of their reach, they are going to ditch A-levels to study uniformed public services instead. They have realised that there is more of a long- term future in detecting Islamic terrorist cells than in identifying iambic pentameter.

But I have an idea how we can fix things. Universities minister David Willetts' recent proposal to sell off additional student places with an international price tag was targeted at the wrong market. Selling top- dollar places to bottom-brained rich kids is too socially divisive. But flogging them to pensioners is a different story. It buoys up higher education's coffers while simultaneously solving the problem of our ageing population. A large-font equity release form is all it would take to unlock the capital from the comfortable family home. It shouldn't take much persuasion to get the oldsters on board: have Il Divo headline at the freshers' ball. It has got to be more fun than the alternative: warding off Alzheimer's with a daily cryptic crossword or tweeting to your two followers, "The Co-op is out of custard tarts".

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the north of England.

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