Get real, top-up fees are the only option we have

July 18, 2003

MP Kerry Pollard had opposed top-up fees. Now he is convinced they are necessary. He explains what changed his mind

When top-up fees for universities were first suggested, I vigorously opposed them. I had, after all, voted against the government for the first time in my parliamentary career on the issue of student fees. I firmly believed that higher education should be free and funded out of general taxation.

This is no longer the case. I now accept that, having built in safeguards for the poorest students, the maximum fee charged by universities must rise from the £3,000 a year proposed by the government to £5,000. As a member of the education and skills select committee, I have spent many hours taking evidence from bodies such as Universities UK, the National Union of Students, lecturers' union Natfhe, the Association of University Teachers and from experts in higher education, as well as questioning education ministers extensively on their plans. The committee has discussed the evidence at great length and in some depth.

It is clear that our universities need additional funding to compete internationally. They are vital to the continuing success and prosperity of our society, and only by providing a high standard of education can we begin to meet the needs of the 21st century.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary small business group, I meet many small and medium-sized businesses that are competing successfully in the world market, but find it difficult to sustain growth due to a lack of skilled staff. For this reason, I cannot support Conservative proposal to abolish student fees and to reduce the number of people entering higher education. Equally, the Liberal Democrat proposals - to fund students out of general taxation - while initially appealing, do not stand up to detailed scrutiny.

I regret that we no longer live in a world where it is possible for all higher education to be free, but the committee's report at least suggests a realistic way forward.

The Dearing report in the late 1990s was based on the principle that it is not just graduates who benefit from higher education, there are benefits for future employers and for society in general. I came to realise, as I sat on the select committee, that there was only one way of achieving these benefits.

The youngest of my seven children will be the first in my family to attend university this autumn. I am delighted that she has chosen to train as a nurse and the benefits of her education will be shared with others for many years to come. It is a credit to our education system that young people from families who would not normally consider university are agreeing to invest their time in higher education.

Last week I also met the new higher education minister, Alan Johnson, to raise some of my personal concerns about the government's plans: in particular, the need to encourage students from poorer families to participate in higher education. I argued that the government's suggested £1,000 was not enough of a grant to make a difference to a poor student and that £10,000, the threshold below which families would qualify, was too low to benefit many.

I also made the point that hardly any graduates in my own constituency would earn less than £15,000, the salary the government says would trigger loans repayment, meaning that they would have to begin paying for their degrees as soon as they started work. This would deter many newly qualified teachers and nurses from accepting jobs in areas such as Hertfordshire where the cost of living is high.

I realise that any rise in support for the poor must go hand-in-hand with an increase in fees. This would provide the funding needed and, at the same time, allow more students from poorer families to avoid paying fees. The fear of future debt must not stand in the way of poor students who wish to enter higher education.

I share the views of my colleagues on the select committee that there must be a thorough debate on these proposals before any are implemented.

But I would urge fellow Labour MPs to read the committee's report very carefully before deciding how they will vote on any future legislation relating to top-up fees. If they carefully consider how we can best achieve the higher skills base we need in order to become more competitive in the the modern world, not just with more graduates, but also to provide the health service with nurses and technicians, then I believe that they will come to share my views.

These are exciting times for higher education - we have a chance to make a real difference in our society, to give more chances to young people, to increase our country's skills base and to keep the UK's excellent reputation in academic research. We must ensure that any decisions we make will help to achieve all of this.

Kerry Pollard is Labour MP for St Albans and a member of the education and skills select committee.

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