Student fees conundrum

12 November 2010

For me life as a student revolved around deciding which night of the week to stay in and how to make penne pasta for the umpteenth night in a row exciting. Politics and student rights didn’t really come into the equation and throughout my time at university the president of the students’ union was a hazy figure who, at worst was the guy who was prematurely balding and at best was the guy who gave out free biscuits on voting day. Of course the tuition fees I had to stump up were considerably less: £1,075 a year compared to the current £3,029 and a fraction – a ninth to be precise – of the coalition government’s proposed increase to £9,000.

If I was faced with paying nine grand a year for my university education on top of paying living costs I’d probably think less about pasta bake and more about student protest. I’d whip out the felt tips and write some literary gem like one student protestor’s ingenious ‘Nick is a rotten Clegg’, on an A3 placard ready to get my march on. 

Because of the violent nature of a small minority of student protestors, resulting in smashed in windows and the vandalisation of the foyer of the Milbank Tower (the Torys’ campaign HQ), it’s easy to dismiss the student protest as young people jumping on the latest protest bandwagon. But I think that £ 9,000 a year is a huge ask and the coalition government’s defence of it – that the higher tuition fees will cover the 40% reduction in university funding from treasury cuts – is immaterial to students. Quite simply a jump from £3,000 to £9,000 is huge and while the rest of the country was running on empty and relying on money it didn’t have, these students were still at school, not a credit card in their site. 

The claim that graduates eventually earn more and should therefore accept rises in what they have to pay back is also hard to swallow. Not all graduates go on to earn vast salaries that push them up into the higher tax bracket and with calculations that three years at university costs on average £43,650, according to, I think in some instances people will think twice about getting a degree. Maybe that’s part of the coalition government’s strategy: to reduce the number of students going to university when their eventual career doesn’t even demand it  – but that doesn’t sit well with its plans to encourage more people from non–academic backgrounds to go to university.  

As part of its proposals, the government has promised that any university charging £6,000 plus tuition fees will have to demonstrate it is increasing the opportunity for students from poorer backgrounds to apply to university and while this sounds rather nicey nicey the details of how the government’s proposed ‘fair access regulator’ will work hasn’t been ironed out.

Parliament will vote on the rise in fees and the rest of the terms before the end of the year and the student protests show what a hot topic tuition fees are. The Liberal Democrats will certainly be feeling the heat, having won swathes of student votes with the party’s pledge to get rid of tuition fee in its electoral mandate, Clegg and co are now part of a coalition government that wants to raise fees dramatically. Asked in parliament (by a tongue in cheek Harriet Harman) recently for an update on the Lib Dem’s campaign to abolish fees, Clegg responded that it’s an “extraordinarily difficult issue.” So is paying back forty grand Mr egg – I mean Clegg.