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Higher Priorities

Chris Isaac argues that the government has found the fairest way to increase univesity funding

Three years after graduating, and after barely denting the debt I’d run up, I found myself asking if getting a degree had been worth it. The drunken nights, casual sex, interesting people, challenging academics and instilled confidence cost thousands. The spare time those student days gave me allowed me to meet people I would otherwise never have encountered and to read books I never knew existed. More than that, they gave me the space to learn something about myself.

My time at university left me with a contacts book that I would never have otherwise had, with the added gain of free accommodation on a floor of my choice in all parts of the country. Where I’m from in the Rhondda it's not routine to rub shoulders with the daughters of peers, read Rimbaud for fun and plan a career in politics. And my earning potential is higher than my contemporaries I left behind in South Wales. So, yes, the benefits of a university place can be enormous, and should be afforded to everyone who wants the experience. The only question is how we pay for it.

The Government is faced with two problems. Firstly, it must increase access to universities if it is to meet its target of getting 50% of young people through university doors by 2010. This target, if slightly arbitrary, is noble and courageous. For instance, I am the comprehensive-school educated son of a single working-class mother from a poor area, exactly the kind of person who should be actively encouraged into higher education, according to the Government's rhetoric.

We assume things have changed for the better since the last big university expansion of the '60s but they haven't really. The proportion of manual workers' children getting into university is the same as it was then. In fact, the National Union of Students' figures show that in some of the lower socio-economic groups' applications to universities have declined by as much 9% since 1997. The number of university places has increased, but they’ve been filled by the less-bright middle class kids. Their parents know the benefits and stump up the cost, whatever it takes. They hire their A-level tutors early.

We on the Left, who care about equality, need to create an even playing field for those without such resource. If our aim is truly to make a more meritocratic and egalitarian society, everyone who is able and could benefit from a university education, and especially those from backgrounds who have traditionally not had the opportunity to enter higher education, must be encouraged and offered a place at university.

Secondly, to meet this target and to redress the underinvestment of the last ten years in higher education funding, it must provide universities with more cash. Against all the odds UK universities rank among the best in the world, with students from all over the globe investing their money to attain a British university degree. For years they have survived the impact of falling investment and resources. Between 1989 and 1997 funding per student fell by over 35%, leading to declining facilities and less investment in research and teaching. Despite this, and it serves as a testament to those who work within them, they have won 44 Nobel prizes in the last fifty years. But as other countries pour more and more money into university funding, we cannot lag behind. We’re already playing catch-up and our universities’ deserved reputation is at stake. If degrees are to continue to mean something and provide a worthwhile use of young people’s time, in addition to equipping them with the skills for an ever closer-growing world economy, universities must be better funded.

The Government aims to address these challenges.

Today, every university charges exactly the same £1125 upfront fee for all courses, whatever the type, length or the level of demand. They do not have the option of not charging a fee. The Government’s proposals would not only put an end to this upfront fee, but could, if the university chose to, end the fee all together. The Higher Education Act will allow universities to charge from £0 to a maximum of £3000 for their courses and put a stop to the unfair demand that students or their parents pay upfront.

Instead, graduates will be asked to contribute through the tax system once they earn £15,000 (rather than £10,000 which is the current level), based on the money they earn – not on the level of fee they owe. This means that a graduate earning £20,000 will pay just £8.65 per week under our proposals, rather than double the amount (£17.30) they do now. But more must be done to encourage those from non-traditional backgrounds into university. That is why under the Government’s proposals 30% of the poorest full-time students will be guaranteed at least £3000 per year.

The Government will provide a fee grant of £1,200, and a new higher education grant of up to £1,500 from 2006. Yes, Tony Blair’s government is reintroducing the grant. Moreover, a disadvantaged student who gets the maximum Government money will also get a minimum of £300 in bursary from their university if they charge £3000 for their course. And this Labour Government will put an end the universities’ class discrimination by introducing an access regulator.

The additional investment in universities from variable fees (based on 75% of universities charging the full £3000 fee) will deliver £1 billion extra each year. Universities already generate £800 million through the current fees. So with these reforms, they will receive £1.8 billion a year in fee income. A university charging a £3000 fee receives extra income that equates to a 30% increase on the average funding per student.

The Government’s proposals are a fair way to increase university funding and improve access. Everyone would like free university places, but as Nye Bevan said, the religion of socialism is the language of priorities; if graduates earn more money than their non-graduate counterparts, it is only fair they pay towards the upkeep of universities when they can afford to contribute. And it is only right that a Labour Government properly funds those universities and offers a place to everyone who wants it.