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James Laughlin: Why this student is in favour of top-up fees

James Laughlin James Laughlin is a 22-year-old student studying Law with European Legal Systems at the University of East Anglia in Norwich and the Humboldt Universität in Berlin.  He writes regularly at

Ever since the introduction of top-up fees by the last Labour government in 2006, no single issue has caused so much consternation amongst the students of the UK.  Protesting against tuition fees takes up large amounts of Student Union time and resources and their abolition has been a cornerstone of Liberal Democrat policy.

Introduced in 2006, they were aimed at allowing universities across England and Wales to charge students an amount much closer to the actual costs involved in delivering a course.  Prior to this, students were expected to pay anything up to around £1,500 a year for their courses (means-tested according to family income).  This sum was expected to be paid to the university up-front by the student.  Because of the fact that it was means-tested, there was no financial support available for this fee.

With the introduction of the £3,000+ fees, the Student Loans Company incorporated a Tuition Fee Loan into their usual offerings; enabling students to study without having to worry about paying the fees up front.  The idea was that this money would be added to the rest of the loan, which would then be paid off at a favourable rate (9% of gross income above £15,000) once the student was earning over £15,000.  i.e. If a student with such a loan earns £16,000 a year their payments on the loan will total just £90 a year.

Pretty reasonable, eh?  The students get to pay for a service at or below cost-price with a low-interest loan, and then get to pay it back when they can afford to do so.

Not according to the NUS and the Liberal Democrats.  They would have you believe that every graduating university student is completely and utterly crippled with debt, which will ruin the quality of their life for years to come and will leave them wishing that they'd never gone to university in the first place.

There is currently quite a bit of strife regarding this matter thanks to the Coalition deal between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.  Because of the two parties' differing views on the matter, students are now upping their protests, demanding that Liberal Democrat MPs vote against their new colleagues should the matter come to a vote in the Commons in the next five years.

I am personally of the opinion that there is nothing wrong with the current system and that, in fact, to change it would risk the quality of the education system that we enjoy here in the UK.

Even in this day and age, there are still perks to being born British.  One of them is the wonderful higher education system that we have.  There are precious few countries where anyone, regardless of beliefs, social standing or background, can freely apply to study at a university of their choice and be accepted on merit.  Testament to the standard of our system are the thousands of international students who flock to the UK every year to study at our world-renowned universities.

It is a fact that nothing is free in this day and age.  Anyone with a modicum of common sense can understand that the days of students only having to pay a small amount (if anything) towards the actual running costs of a course could not last forever.  If you decide to operate anything at a loss then the day will come when even the biggest of start-up funds will run out.  It is only fair that people should be expected to pay their way.

The biggest question for the anti-tuition-fees brigade is where they envisage the money to sustain a world-class education system would come from should the decision be made to scrap tuition fees.  The only logical conclusion would be that they intend the fees to be paid for by the taxpayer.

This, of course, would be catastrophic.  In 2005, a Labour MP claimed that for the taxpayer to foot the bill for university fees would result in the standard rate of Income Tax having to be raised by between three and four pence.  In the current situation where families are having enough trouble making ends meet as it is, losing another four Pounds for every hundred earned is unthinkable.  Furthermore, why should those who aren't using the system be expected to pay for those who are?

Such an increase in taxation would result in an average worker (earning £25,000 a year for 45 years) paying an extra £36,000 (or the tuition fees of four students on three-year courses) in order to fund universities over the course of their working life, regardless of whether they had taken advantage of the system.

I wholeheartedly agree with David Willetts’ sentiments expressed in his interview with The Guardian in which he describes the cost to the Government of every degree course as “a burden on the taxpayer”.  We should be looking at a system whereby there is no need for the government, and more importantly those taxpayers who do not choose to go to university, to fund the system; be this through an increase in fees or merely a crackdown on university waste.  Were studies into finding the formula for the ultimate bacon sandwich or the worst day of the year really a suitable use of our money?

One of the key arguments used by the anti-brigade is that the tuition fees discourage students from poorer backgrounds from going to university in the first place; meaning that countless talented brains are lost for the want of a fairer system.

I put it to them that the main reason that these people are put off going to university is not the fees situation (they would still have to fund their living costs of course) but rather the skewed view of the system presented by its main detractors.  The fact that these people are led to believe that they cannot afford to go to university, and are even told outright that "tuition fees mean that students from poor backgrounds cannot go to university", means that they do not even investigate the avenues open to them; rather choosing to believe that the rhetoric spouted by the NUS and the Liberal Democrats is gospel.

I hazard that if these students were instead told the truth, i.e. "if your financial situation warrants it you will be given a loan to cover all your costs that you will only ever have to pay back when you can afford to do so", we would see a lot more students from poorer backgrounds graduating with the degrees that they deserve.

It would appear that the Liberal Democrat policy regarding tuition-fees is a hangover from their pre-government days; the days in which they could promise the electorate the moon on a stick, safe in the knowledge that they would never be called upon to deliver on said promises.

And as for the students?

It is high time for them to realise that nothing is free in this day and age and that maybe they should get off their high horse and actually get on with studying for the degrees that they themselves are paying for.


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