Tuition: to pay or not?

December 11, 1998

NO say rebel students Alice Nash and Kate Atkinson

We are two students who have decided to withhold our payment of the Pounds 1,000 tuition fee in protest against the Education Act. We can afford the fee but are refusing to pay on principle. We have been criticised because we can pay, but will not, rather than protesting because we cannot afford to pay. Yet unless "people like us" oppose this legislation it will continue to be mainly "people like us" that attend university.

Tuition fees and the abolition of the grant are a first step in the privatisation of education. This slippery slope will end in the exclusion of working-class students from university. Why would an underprivileged 18-year-old choose to take on Pounds 12,000 debt when they could work and earn immediately, especially if there is no family encouragement to go to university?

Students are also concerned about the "commodification of education". Putting a price tag on education will change society's attitudes towards it. Why would a student choose to study English or history when faced with an onerous debt?

Why would they choose a low-paid job such as teaching over more lucrative private-sector offers? Labour is preoccupied with the economic benefit of education; this may destroy universities as centres of culture, as is already happening in Australia and Canada.

We think there is a sensible alternative to tuition fees. The Balliol junior common room, our student union, advocated a version of this alternative last year and got support from MPs and lords. The suggestion was to keep the grant, abolish tuition fees and fund both the grant and an increase in higher education funding with an income-contingent graduate charge, payable after a student has completed his degree. If the charge were to last for 15 years after graduation, it would amount to between 1.5 and 2.2 per cent of graduates' income.

This proposal protects access by giving all students the same financial incentives to attend university. It is fairer too; graduates contribute to the cost of education in proportion to how much they benefit from it financially.

We will keep fighting until the government has the courage to come back to the drawing board and consider sensible alternatives.

Kate Atkinson and Alice Nash are undergraduates at Balliol College, Oxford.

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