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STUDENT VOICES: The Tuition Fees Debate

AS OF September 2012, new full-time University undergraduate students across the country will be under the ruling of a rise in tuition fees, set out by the Coalition Government in November 2010.

Under the reform, tuition fees are set to increase to a maximum of £9,000 per year per student, nearly tripling the current charges of £3,290.

Put this into practice and after three years of studying, a student who started university in 2011-12 will be likely to come out with an overall debt, including maintenance loans for living costs, of around £21,000 while a student who started in 2012-13 would be likely to come out with one of £40,000, nearly double as much damage.

Such a drastic change has sent alarm bells ringing among all students and educational establishments, especially those in the working class environment.

Ann-Marie Oaten, Head of Sixth Form at Leiston High School sympathises: “It definitely puts working-class people at a disadvantage.

“Many of the students here are rethinking about whether or not to apply as the potential of being £40,000 in debt by the age of 21, without the certainty of a job at the end of it, really is a daunting prospect.”

Consequently, there have been a number of student riots against the fees and these are set to continue as September looms closer.

After the Government initially stated that the fees would be between £6,000 and £9,000, most universities have copied each other, initiating the domino effect by upping the charges to £9,000 as they don’t want to be seen as inferior to the university above them in the university league tables.

Students have been questioning the justification of the extortionate fees and perhaps rightly so. Universities in England charge up to as much as £9,000, making them one of the most expensive in the world. Compare this to the system in Scotland, where Scottish students who study there do not have to pay any fees and you can perhaps see why there is so much opposition to this system.

Leiston High School is just a one of a number of working class schools whose university application rates may diminish due to the changes.

In fact they already have: 92% of Leiston High School’s 2009 year 13 students graduates applied to go to university, while only 50% of this year’s year 13 students have applied.

A staggering difference.

“It’s a shame because in the last five years, the average of students applying to go to university from here has been in the 70% bracket, something we are very proud of. I really hope this doesn’t drop off too much but I can see why alot of people are stalling,” said Oaten.

But for all the obvious negatives this new system brings, there are also some benefits.

One of the main ones is that the threshold, i.e. the yearly salary you have to meet before you start paying back any of your loan, has also increased.

Under the old system, students start paying back some parts of their loan when they earn over £15,000 a year. Under the new system, this figure has been increased to £21,000. Anything you earn over this figure, you will pay 9% of this per year. For example, if you earn £22,000 a year, you have earned £1,000 over the threshold; therefore you will pay 9% of that each year – which works out to £90 per year/£1.73 per week. The more you earn, the harder the repayments will hit you.

James Newton, who deals with the university applications for Leiston High School, believes the new system has changed for the better: “I think it’s a really good system, I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

“Yes, it is a lot of money to pay back, but the likelihood is that you will probably never pay it back.”

In fact, it is estimated that only 10% of students will fully repay their loans. And with all/remaining debts from the loan cleared by the government 30 years after graduation, maybe there is too much commotion on these changes, as Newton says.

Students thinking about applying will be buoyed by this news.

One unnamed year 13 Leiston High student debating the options open to them said: “I am largely undecided on what to do. I had always planned to go to university but since the government made the relevant changes, I’m not sure all the hassle and fuss of getting in that much debt is really worth it.”

A fellow year 13 Leiston High student, who also wished to remain unnamed, is pretty adamant about their choice: “I think what the Government has done is crazy. The tuition fees were bad enough before these extensive changes. There is absolutely no way I am going, I don’t want to run the risk of having debts of potentially £40,000 to my name, even if there are implications on the way it’s paid back.”

It is not just Leiston High’s application rates that have dropped. Since the changes; it seems all educational establishments have dropped.

The University of Brighton, a leading sports university, released figures supporting this. In December 2010, they had 1,543 students apply for the academic year 2011-12 while in December 2011, they had 966 for 2012-13.

Although admitting that this is quite a significant drop of 577 students, equalling to a 28% decrease, Dan Burdsey, Admissions Tutor for the University of Brighton said: “There is definitely an apparent impact, but we don’t know the full implications of this yet. There is still a long way to go in terms of the application process for students planning to attend University in 2012-13.”

As September grows closer, the amount of unrest and dissatisfaction among students is likely to increase, begging the question: will this new system ever work? It may take years for it to be accepted across England, if it ever will, but Oaten is adamant students should still go to university: “I know it’s an awful lot of money but my advice would be that if you’ve got the opportunity to go, do it. University life helps people grow and is an invaluable stepping stone to life.”

Will Ridgard – @WillRidgard

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