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Tuition fees: what price a university education?

Patrick Burns | 11:29 UK time, Monday, 4 April 2011

Graduation ceremony

Spot the connection between these two developments this week.

1.The Government renews its commitment to improving social mobility.

2.Coventry University becomes the latest of our region's universities to announce its tuition fees. Along with Aston, Birmingham and Warwick, it proposes to charge up to the maximum of £9,000. Four down, nine to go.

The Government's critics have certainly wasted no time in making the connection.

They say that along with the scrappping of Education Maintainance Allowance, increasing students' tuition fees undermines the Government's declared intentions on on social mobility: poorer youngsters, they argue, will be more fearful of going into debt, leaving our top universities to become once again the preserve of the better-off and 'elbows out' middle classes.

We've seen already how the issue of student finance has the potential to inflame the most violent protests on the streets around Westminster since the Poll Tax Riots over 20 years ago. It's also one of the main reasons generally given for Nick Clegg's plummetting popularity ratings. 

Amid all the sound and fury generated by this debate it's becoming more and more difficult to disentangle the cat's cradle of claim and counter-claim.

Supporters of the Government's policy on student finance point out that the controversial 'up front' fees introduced under Labour will disappear.

Not all courses will involve the full £9,000 (Coventry propose it for just a handful). Universities are introducing their own individual 'relief' and ''support' packages to assist poorer students and to defend their own credentials on social mobility.

And then there is the widespread perception, possibly because the fee introduced under Labour was £3,000, that this is what a university course costs. Our universities tell us the real figure is well over twice that.

Finally, supporters point out that graduates will not start repaying their loans until they are earning at least £21,000 a year and if their incomes slip below £21k, their repayments are suspended again. In any event the slate will be wiped clean after 30 years and the Government assure us the poorest 20% of students will actually be better off than they were under Labour's funding regime.

All of which has a hollow ring for thousands of young graduates and under graduates facing the tightest jobs market in living memory; and with one-in-five 16 to 24 year olds here looking for work, our region faces some of the biggest challenges anywhere in the UK.

Who can blame them for being sceptical about the well-worn argument that a university education is the best investment any young person can make?

Equally, is it fair for the already hard-pressed taxpayer to be asked to dig still deeper? Shouldn't any extra burden be borne by those who benefit  directly from our universities?

The newer ones, usually former polytechnics like Coventry, Staffordshire and Wolverhampton, face an agonising dilemma. If they are to fulfil their mission of equipping some of our least resilient areas to compete in global markets, how can they set fee levels which risk putting-off the very youngsters they most need to atrract?

On the other hand, with their income from the Higher Education Funding Council set to be cut by up to 75% by 2015, how can they remain competitive with other 'knowledge-based economies' worldwide?

Chillingly, one former university vice chancellor told me recently that "the top North American universities are running rings around ours, even Oxbridge" and the same, apparently, could soon be true in China where a new generation of top class higher education institutions are fast emerging as a global academic force.

These are the arguments which we'll be exploring in this week's Politics Show. Our reporter Holly Lewis talks to sixth formers at Codsall Community High School near Wolverhampton. How are the potential students of the future facing-up to these most difficult of questions? 

And I'll be joined in the studio by three politicians and a vice chancellor. The Labour MP for West Bromwich West, Adrian Bailey, chairs the Commons Business Select Committee, who have been hearing evidence this week on the whole question of university funding; the Conservative MP for Stratford-on-Avon Nadhim Zahawi also sits on that same committee; and for the Liberal Democrats, Susan Juned is a member of Stratford District Council and of her party's Federal Executive. Also with me will be Professor Julia King, the Vice Chancellor of Aston University.

And I hope you'll be with us too, from 1215 this Sunday 10 April 2011 on BBC One.

In the meantime, here are two more connected developments:

1.You can email  your views to politicsshowwestmids@bbc.co.uk and follow us on Twitter using the hashtag #polshowmids for your views

2.Here is the full version of my colleague James O'Hara's interview with the recently-installed Vice Chancellor of Staffordshire University, Professor Michael Gunn.

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