Who can, should pay

June 11, 1999

The National Union of Students has criticised tuition fees and attacked them as an assault on social justice.

This argument hides two questionable assumptions. The first is that a means-tested contribution to fees is a prime consideration in the decision to undertake higher education. Students taking a postgraduate initial teacher training qualification or degree course funded by the National Health Service are exempt from fees, yet recruitment to postgraduate certificate of education and nursing courses continues to be difficult. In contrast, applications for full-time study via the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service have wavered just slightly.

The second assumption is about who studies and how. Where widening participation and lifelong learning have been achieved in the past, it has been through part-time study. Since long before it was fashionable, the Open University has been recruiting tens of thousands of mature students from non-traditional backgrounds and charging them tuition fees. The model of 18-year-olds taking a three or four-year full-time degree has been a consistently middle-class experience. The evidence of the past 20 to 30 years suggests that even with fees paid and a full grant, access to full-time higher education is hard for the working class.

The losers in the introduction of fees are not those from modest backgrounds, because under the means-testing system they do not have to pay. Rather, in Scotland it is the 23 per cent of students who are liable for the full fee who lose.

The primary beneficiary of degree-level study is the graduate. It would seem reasonable for students to make a contribution to their tuition.

If the Scottish review of student support really wants to deliver increased expenditure on higher education, it should consider raising the maximum tuition fee payable so that those who benefit and can afford to pay do so.

Paul Wakeling


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