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get now—still far less than is
needed. “There’s a big problem,
and this does not address it,”
said Ben Brinded, president
of the Cambridge University
Student Union, which has
been in the thick of the debate.
“Universities are underfunded.
There’s a definite consensus that
the systemneeds to change.
The problem is, that’s not going
to change. Even after this plan
takes effect, the universities will
still be underfunded.”
Meanwhile, the cost to the
government of making all of its
many compromises—including
paying low-income students’
tuition and subsidizing
other students’ loans—will
come to about $2.2 billion,
the logic of which is lost on
some oppositionministers
of Parliament. “In order to
raise slightly less than £1
billion a year for universities,
the taxpayer is going to have
to spend something like £1.2 billion,” said Conservative
educationminister TimCollins, adding (with a British flair
for understatement): “That’s an extremely inefficient way of
If there is concern over the effect of this plan on university
finances, there’s near rebellion over its impact on students. By
one estimate, top-up fees combined with increases in the cost
of living could boost average student debt at graduation to
more than $62,000 by 2010. (The government says the average
debt will be $27,600.) Even with financial aid that covers up to
the full price of tuition, many low-income
students who are concerned about the
debt they might assume in order to pay
their living costs may steer clear of higher
This comes at a time when it is already
the case that only 19 percent of young
people from the poorest families go to
college in England, compared to 50 percent
of the children of the richest. The other
groupmost likely to be affected is the
middle-class students who cannot afford
to pay the new tuition rate but don’t qualify
for grants.
It is a familiar controversy with a
different accent. “We are looking with an
eye to what has happened in the U.S.,”
said Claire Callender, a professor of social
policy at London South Bank University who has studied the
potential impact. “That’s not the way we do things in the UK.”
Students in England contributed nothing at all toward the
cost of their tuition until 1998, when a fixed fee of about $1,840
was imposed, payable at the beginning of each academic
year. Every university was required by law to charge the same
amount to undergraduates, fromnewly established polytechnic
institutes to Oxford and Cambridge. In 1999, government-
subsidized “maintenance grants” for room and board were also
phased out and replaced entirely with loans.
Callender, whose university is in a low-income district
south of theThames and serves a largely low-income student
body, has undertaken the most exhaustive research into
student attitudes toward debt and other issues related to the
effect of top-up fees. “My personal concerns are very much
about the low-income groups. That’s why I’m sitting in a
university like this one instead of on the other side of the
river,” Callender said, blanketing a conference table with
transparencies covered in colored bar graphs.
Among other things, these demonstrate her findings that
students frompoorer backgrounds have shouldered a larger
share of the costs introduced in 1998 than students from
wealthier families. But students from all backgrounds have
accumulated spiraling debts. Between 1995 and 1998, the
percentage of UK students taking out loans rose from 59 to 71.
By 2001, 81 percent of students were borrowing to pay their
way through school. And the debts of students graduating last
year were two and a half times more than those who graduated
five years earlier. Low-income students owed an average
of about $17,860, and higher-income students owed about
“Student debt is a class issue,” Callender said. “The policies
are regressive, because poor students have to pay relatively
more toward their education.”
The government insists that its new policies will actually
encourage more students to consider higher education
because they’ll no longer have to hand over any money in
advance. This, the government says, will also put less financial
pressure on these students’ families. The poorest students, the
government points out, also will be eligible for aid that adds up
to the full cost of tuition. It says that between 35 and 37 percent
of students will have their full costs covered. (Today, 45 percent
But Callender says it is less the reality than the perception
about costs—and, particularly, debt—that makes low-income
students four times less likely to go to college than wealthier
students. Of 2,000 prospective students surveyed, those from
low social classes said they were more likely to be discouraged
from going to college because of their fear of incurring
debt. The government’s new policies “are predicated on the
accumulation of debt and thus are in danger of deterring
the very students at the heart of their widening participation
policies,” Callender said.
Like many critics of top-up fees, Callender especially
resents the fact that universities will be allowed for the first
time to charge different tuitions depending on the perceived
value of their programs. Creating a competitive market for
higher education risks further dividing people by class and
income, critics say. Almost two-thirds of students surveyed
said they would have gone to a different university if their first
choice charged tuition of $5,520, and 72 percent of low- and
middle-income parents said that, given the choice between
two universities with different fees, their children were likely
Claire Callender, professor of social policy at
London South Bank University, thinks the new
policy mimics the worst aspects of the U.S.
approach to financing higher education.
Imagine the American
system of costly and
complex university
financing and heavy
student debt imposed
from scratch on a
country where, until
six years ago, tuition
was completely free.