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University top-up fees: fair or not?

Will top-up fees bridge the gap between rich and poor or prove another hurdle for the working classes?

YES: YOU would expect the editor of a left-wing journal (widely judged to be well to the left of Tony Blair) to oppose student fees. On the contrary, I believe that the introduction of fees is one of the best and most potentially egalitarian things this Government has done.

Look at it like this. A university education is expensive. When we gave 18-year-olds free tuition, we gave them, in effect, a handout from the taxpayer of pound;15,000 or more (depending on the course). Yet university tuition goes overwhelmingly to the better-off. Fewer than 20 per cent of working-class families send their children to universities against 80 per cent of professional families. Only 1 per cent of university entrants are from the unskilled working classes.

The handout, moreover, is worth more than it seems. A degree, compared with two A-levels, brings, on average, an extra pound;400,000 in lifetime earnings.

We therefore have the preposterous situation that affluent parents pay at least pound;4,800 a year, and often as much as pound;10,000, to send their children to independent schools that virtually guarantee university entry. Once those children get to Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol or wherever, elbowing aside working-class children educated at comprehensives, taxpayers (many of whom do not earn in a year what the affluent shell out in school fees alone) foot the bill.

Labour's introduction of pound;1,000-a-year tuition fees went some way to correcting this social injustice. The usual objection is that those few students from poor homes who now go to university will in future be deterred by the cost. The answer is that they have no need to be. Where parental income is less than pound;17,805 a year, the tuiton is free; where it is less than pound;28,504, the student does not have to pay the full pound;1,000.

This system has two weaknesses. First, the remaining taxpayer subsidy to the well-off is larger than it looks because the interest rate on the loans is effectively zero. Second, a student on a theology course pays the same in fees as one on a medical course. Yet the latter is at least four times more expensive and also brings a much greater uplift to earning power.

I would therefore charge interest on the loans. I would also, as economists at Nottingham University proposed, allow universities to charge "top-up" fees. It is absurd that a biologist at Oxford or Cambridge (probably middle-class) should pay the same as a cultural studies student at Teesside (probably working-class).

Many academics favour these ideas because universities could pay higher staff salaries, repair their research infrastructure and reduce class sizes. But to me, the most important attraction is that some of the money could be used for good old-fashioned social engineering. More students overall could go to university and those from poor homes could be given generous scholarships, covering not only the full tuition fees but also living costs.

Loan repayments could be waived for those who go into nursing, teaching or other socially valuable but poorly-remunerated careers. In other words, higher education could be transformed into an instrument for transferring resources from rich to poor.

Far from opposing fees, teachers, particularly in comprehensives, should campaign for their extension. They should tell pupils from disadvantaged families that, since they won't have to pay the fees, the Government is, in effect, offering them a gift.

Peter Wilby is the editor of the New Statesman

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