Higher education student tuition fees condemned by District Chairman

Statement by the Rev Ward Jones, Chairman of the BristolMethodist District

"It is with great concern that we hear that Secretary of StateCharles Clarke anticipates another stealth tax in relation toHigher Education. Here is a man who displays an unbelievablecommitment to the providers of HE, but a total disregard forpotential and actual recipients. As the latest idea emerges aboutcharging students up to £3000 in tuition fees, the question must beasked - what does it mean for those students? Mr Clarke certainlydoesn't seem to care. I have yet to hear any government ministerjustify effectively the implications of a certain segment of thepopulation being given a financial millstone to carry into theirworking lives. Or even reflect on what is an acceptable level ofdebt 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 maintenancegrants become loans. Then tuition fees of £1000 are added. And now,potentially, up to £2,000 further per annum. If this country wantsan educated work force, for the sake of its own growth and survivalit 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 payersand funders of future HE provision in addition to the loans andfees now being accumulated against their future incomes.) MrClarke's preposterous proposals need to be stopped in theirtracks.

"One of the excuses that has been used to justify this stealthtax is the need to get more and more students into HigherEducation. But when have we heard anyone explain or justify what isa relevant level of 18-year-olds to be sending into HE? For thefirst time this summer, after GCSE and A-Level results werepublished, we heard noises from the Government that perhaps not allare able to cope with GCSE in its current format (despite theintroduction of 'tiers' within each exam over recent years). So whyshould we assume more and more will cope with and benefit fromHE?

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

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

The Rev Ward Jones is leader of more than 13,000 Methodistsof the Bristol Methodist District, which includes 280 churchesacross Gloucestershire, Avon, Wiltshire & NorthSomerset.