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Topping up teenage misery

The thought had to come from somewhere, but I'm damned if I expected it to come from Whitehall and Charles Clarke. I had been going around muttering on the subject, unheeded by family and colleagues who have learned to ignore worried monologues: "Top-up fees ... bad thing anyway ... but even worse if you means test them on individual parental incomes! Are 18-year-olds legal adults, or not? And what about the Helenas? Where's the justice?"

We shall come back to Helena in a moment. But what was exercising me was the apparently universal assumption that if and when they bring in realistically huge tuition fees for university students, the adult children of poorer parents would be let off, and those whose parents could afford more would pay the lot. It happens at the moment: the pound;1,050 fee is thoroughly means tested, as is the student loan. And given the class-hatred militancy of Margaret Hodge's cry: "Why should the dustman pay for the doctor?" it seemed likely that the Government would carry on the principle.

Never mind that there are numerous good reasons why the dustman might want to pay for the education of doctors. For one thing, his own kid might fancy being one. For another thing, he might have a wheelie bin dropped on him , and be glad of surgeons and anaesthetists qualified to remove the handle from his cranium.

But, as I say, it seemed unlikely that Charles Clarke would challenge the received wisdom that the affluent middle-class parent - whether or not he or she took a degree - must pay like a sugar daddy till their darlings are 23, and that only the working-class 18-year-old is truly a separate individual. But suddenly, government veered away from this insulting idea, and admitted that if 18-year-olds can be shot dead in Iraq or defiantly marry wildly unsuitable divorcees with peroxide hair and deafening laughs, they are adults. Just because fortune put them in a middle-income family, they shouldn't be at their parents' mercy about whether they go to university, and what they study.

Which brings us to Helena (not quite her real name). Back in the days of student grants, she was, like me, on the minimum level, designed to be made up to a reasonable living allowance by "parental contribution". My parents faithfully paid the prescribed sum, and that was fine. I tended to live on potatoes for the last couple of weeks of term owing to the bookshop bill, but it was manageable.

Helena's parents, on the other hand, wouldn't pay a bean. They were sulking because she wouldn't study law, like her great bully of a father. They had meant her for a lawyer, planned her chambers place, and all but bought the wig. Helena thought otherwise and read music (today she is a distinguished musicologist) so her father wouldn't pay her a bean . He thought she'd crumble and switch her course, but instead she worked long evening hours in a pub kitchen. Meanwhile, her peers from homes with lower incomes, not plagued by opinionated middle-class parents, got the full grant. They didn't think it fair, and neither did she.

Of course, most parents who can help to pay will do so. The habit of supporting your children dies hard. But some will not. Some fall out with their children, others use their economic clout to dictate a son or daughter's direction, others despise university as a waste of time. Top-up fees, based crudely on parental income, would lead to a lot of misery. Mind you, the alternative of gaily charging everyone pound;5,000 a year is pretty awful too. Mr Clarke thinks students spend their money on cars, but the poorest do no such thing: they just make themselves ill with anxiety at the gargantuan scale of their debt.

We are told that the alternative of a "graduate tax" is unworkable because it would take too long to come through. Well, yes: but only if it wasn't retrospective. The fair answer is staring us in the face. There are tens of thousands of middle-aged graduates who were financially featherbedded through university decades ago, and who are now high earners.

They - we - could quite easily be asked to pay a few hundred a year, to acknowledge and repay the gift that we were offered by fellow citizens. It would not be just another income tax hike, because it would be ring-fenced for universities and charged to those who went there and subsequently prospered. Most of the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet would pay, but John Major would not. In our family I would pay, but not my husband, who went to work at 18. Two of my brothers would pay, but not the eldest, who has been paying tax ever since he passed his A-levels.

It would be fair. It would bridge the time gap and prevent the top-up fee. It is the obvious solution. All it needs is a bit of bottle.

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