04 September 2003

Higher education student tuition fees condemned by District Chairman

Statement by the Rev Ward Jones, Chairman of the Bristol Methodist District

"It is with great concern that we hear that Secretary of State Charles Clarke anticipates another stealth tax in relation to Higher Education. Here is a man who displays an unbelievable commitment to the providers of HE, but a total disregard for potential and actual recipients. As the latest idea emerges about charging students up to £3000 in tuition fees, the question must be asked - what does it mean for those students? Mr Clarke certainly doesn't seem to care. I have yet to hear any government minister justify effectively the implications of a certain segment of the population being given a financial millstone to carry into their working lives. Or even reflect on what is an acceptable level of debt to impose upon someone in that way.

"The short answer to this latter question ought to be 'nil'. But, bit by bit, the stealth tax is upped - first maintenance grants become loans. Then tuition fees of £1000 are added. And now, potentially, up to £2,000 further per annum. If this country wants an educated work force, for the sake of its own growth and survival it must be prepared to pay for it, as it has done in the past. (Remember that today's HE students will be tomorrow's tax payers and funders of future HE provision in addition to the loans and fees now being accumulated against their future incomes.) Mr Clarke's preposterous proposals need to be stopped in their tracks.

"One of the excuses that has been used to justify this stealth tax is the need to get more and more students into Higher Education. But when have we heard anyone explain or justify what is a relevant level of 18-year-olds to be sending into HE? For the first time this summer, after GCSE and A-Level results were published, we heard noises from the Government that perhaps not all are able to cope with GCSE in its current format (despite the introduction of 'tiers' within each exam over recent years). So why should we assume more and more will cope with and benefit from HE?

"The real issue here has rather to do with getting those who can benefit from HE into the Universities. Current drop-out levels suggest that we may well have reached the maximum level of those who can benefit from HE. If that is so, then the real task is not about finding more money to get more students into HE, but ensuring those who can really benefit will actually get there. The challenge is then not to simply provide more money so that more 18-year-olds can go onto University, but to challenge the Universities themselves to refine their selection processes. Too many HE institutions - the newer ones in particular - simply set a points score for A-Level, take as many students and their fees as they can and move on thankfully into a new academic year.

"I hope student bodies will protest loudly and vehemently. I hope individuals will lobby their MPs. I hope the claimed for massive back-bench revolt on this issue will not be bought off by Government managers and party whips. I hope the Churches and others with a concern for our young people's future will all shout loud and clear -'Enough is already too much Mr Clarke'. "

The Rev Ward Jones is leader of more than 13,000 Methodists of the Bristol Methodist District, which includes 280 churches across Gloucestershire, Avon, Wiltshire & North Somerset.

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