Post-16 education funding is the subject of new reports. David Charter outlines the NUS's assessment of student funding options. Returning student support to 1979 levels would cost at least Pounds 8.7 billion, the National Union of Students claims in its review Funding Our Future.
That would need an income tax rise of at least 5p in the pound to pay for the students currently in further and higher education.
The NUS document, sent to all student unions for debate and comment, assesses how ten potential funding scenarios meet the union's educational objectives.
The most favourable comments are made about two options linked to repaying loans for fees and maintenance based on earnings in later life, although a voucher system and a graduate tax and an employer levy also receive praise.
Jim Murphy, NUS president, said: "NUS remains committed to the principle that students should bear no costs at the point of entry to education and that no student access should be prohibited because of financial circumstances. "It may be that student unions decide not just to adopt one option but possibly to reject various options, leaving a number of solutions open," he said.
This failure included the fact that, between 1991 and 1994, an extra 33,256 students from social classes one and two were accepted into United Kingdom universities, compared with an extra 8,311 from social classes four and five.
Under the current system, a student beginning a three-year degree this year will owe Pounds 4,550 for a maximum student loan - a repayment of Pounds 75.83 per month for five years.
Each of the options is given an NUS judgement against five objectives: alleviating hardship; improving access to education; bridging inequalities between further and higher education; funding equitably part-time and full-time study; and enhancing education quality.
* Option A: the status quo, rates as poor or worse on all of these.
* Option B: putting 5p on income tax, rates fair or good but if 25 per cent more expansion is allowed for, then Pounds 10.75 billion would be needed to return to 1979 levels.
* Option C: students repaying a proportion of tuition fees in tax or National Insurance once their earnings have passed a certain level.
If they pay 20 per cent of their fees for a three-year course, then classroom-based courses would cost up to Pounds 1,500, a laboratory or workshop-based course would cost Pounds 1,800, and clinical training would cost Pounds 4,500 for three years. A flat rate of 20 per cent of average fees would cost graduates Pounds 1,830.
Advantages include no time limit on repayments and low default levels because it is administered through the tax system. However, a lot of funding would be needed to set up the system.
* Option D: whereby students could borrow a flexible amount for maintenance and pay it off once an earnings threshold is reached is judged as good in four in five educational objectives. A student who borrowed Pounds 3,000 would pay back Pounds 18.38 per month for five years, assuming 4 per cent inflation.
* Option E:top-up tuition fees charged by institutions, could be paid up-front or via a Government loan, and is rated poor for widening access, alleviating student hardship and funding part-time and further education students.
The NUS says that if an institution charged Pounds 3,000 for a three-year full-time course, repayments over five years at an APR of 16.9 per cent would be Pounds 101 per month - a total of Pounds 5,960. However this figure appears inflated alongside other options because it is the only loan costed at a commercial rate.
* Option F: a graduate tax gets a mostly "fair" rating. This system could be offered with the opportunity of paying a proportion of tuition and maintenance upfront.
A flat rate, for example a penny in the pound, on average earnings of Pounds 18,150 would cost a single person Pounds 9.50 extra a month. A proportional rate could charge 2p for middle-income earners and 3p for those on high income.
* Option G: a voucher system, is said to depend on whether it would adequately cover tuition fees and maintenance. The higher the value of vouchers, the more advantages the NUS sees in the system, although it is seen as a source of extra funds for post-16 education only if accompanied by top-up fees.
* Option H: privatising the loans system is explored and costed on the basis of repayment through 1 per cent on top of tax or National Insurance. On a loan of Pounds 3,000 and average earnings of Pounds 18,150, this would result in payments of Pounds 12.60 per month over 20 years. However, on its own this option is seen as a barrier to widening access to less well-off students and alleviating student poverty.
Private sources of funding are explored in the final two options.
* Option I: a direct levy from employers' National Insurance contributions for recruits who had spent two years in further or higher education is seen as working alongside some form of student contribution scheme.
Disadvantages could be a reducation in salaries as the employer passes the cost back to the employee, but it is seen as a potential major source of new funds.
* Option J: private funding for projects such as science parks, conferences and the sale of intellectual property rights, is not seen as meeting any of the NUS's aims. It believes private funds would be concentrated on a few institutions seen as centres of excellence.