Mixed Norfolk reaction to university fees proposals

It has been anticipated, trailed, second-guessed and leaked to saturation point. Now, as Education Correspondent STEVE DOWNES reports, the Browne review into higher education funding is on the table. And it is just as divisive as expected.

'Disastrous'. 'Ingenious'. 'Disgusting'. 'Progressive'.

These are just a few of the words used to describe Lord Browne's long-awaited review into higher education funding.

So how are the politicians going to take these adjectives and boil them down to something more digestible?

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That is the challenge facing the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition as is wrestles with the reality of a cavernous deficit, a significant cut in university funding (expected to be announced at the October Spending Review on Wednesday) and the need to maintain cashflow to ensure the higher education sector can remain internationally competitive.

After many months of careful consideration, Lord Browne has pulled the pin out of his grenade.

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The most explosive proposal is the potential removal of the cap on how much universities can charge for degrees. Critics fear it could mean debts of anything from �50,000 to �100,000 for future graduates.

But he has disarmed some of his less entrenched critics with the suggestion of raising the point at which graduates begins to repay their tuition fee debts from when they are earning �15,000 to �21,000.

He has also suggested that part-time undergraduates should have access to the loans system for the first time, while also proposing the removal of the means test qualification for maintenance loans.

In this region, his package of proposals, which has been well received by the government and is likely to form the basis of a parliamentary bill in the near future, has polarised views.

Universities remain cagey, and are waiting for the spending review and any firm government proposals before committing themselves.

Prof John Last, principal of Norwich University College of the Arts (Nuca), said: 'As the detailed implications of the spending review and the Browne Review unfold, we will be looking at the most appropriate funding structure for Nuca going forward to ensure our future quality and continued success.'

A University of East Anglia (UEA) spokesman said: 'Lord Browne's review addresses the need for a properly funded higher education system, while building on the current system so that students would only begin to pay back their fees once they are earning �21,000.

'His recommendations have yet to be debated and accepted by the government so it is too early to comment in any detail.'

University student unions are rather less circumspect.

University College Suffolk (UCS) student union president Andy Speed said the proposals were the 'worst possible outcome for institutions, students and aspirational families'.

He said: 'These proposals will put the best degrees firmly out of reach of people from lower income backgrounds. Higher repayments on student loans will hit graduates hard in the pocket, with those who borrowed the most, typically those from disadvantaged backgrounds, worst affected. The plans are totally unfair and would be disastrous for social mobility.'

He added that UCS, which opened in 2007, could be driven out of existence by the proposals.

'If our politicians agree to these recommendations to create a free market in higher education they may jeopardise the entire future of UCS. So many of our future students will be unable to afford any increase in costs.

'With the possibility of losing most of its government funding, UCS may have no choice but to increase fees or to reduce the quality of it's programmes.'

Tom Dolton, communications officer for the Union of UEA Students urged all of Norwich South Lib Dem MP Simon Wright's constituents to contact him and let him know of their disgust at the proposals.

Like all of the current Lib Dem MPs, Mr Wright signed a pre-election pledge to oppose any increase in fees. It is thought his stance played a key role in encouraging some UEA students to vote for him and help him secure a narrow victory over Charles Clarke.

Mr Dolton said: 'Students at UEA who lent their votes to Simon Wright placed their trust in this candidate because of his stance on tuition fees, and we sincerely hope that he honours his pledge to vote against any rise in fees.

'Lord Browne's recommendations, if put in place, will result in students graduating with an astronomical amount of debt which will take decades for them to pay off.'

Mr Wright would not say whether he supported the proposed increase, but was generally positive about Lord Browne's ideas.

He said: 'The government has a few weeks to consider this report and to assess how the overall package will impact on students, universities and taxpayers.

'I'm particularly keen to understand what impact these proposals would have on social mobility. It's always been my fear that greater debt would put off people from poorer backgrounds.'

He said he had lined up a meeting with UEA's student union at the weekend, and added: 'I'm anxious that we don't get too hung up on the size of the fee. In principal I support free education, but we are not going to get to that point during this parliament. The next best thing is to get the best deal possible for students.'

Mr Clarke, who, as education secretary, introduced the current tuition fees regime that came into effect in 2006, welcomed Lord Browne's endorsement of the student finance system, and was pleased the review had picked up on his recommendations to extend the scheme to part-time students, remove the means test for maintenance loans and establish a real rate of interest for repayment.

But he warned: 'It is essential that the government does not cut the university teaching grant by the 80pc which many fear. The whole purpose of introducing tuition fees was to increase university resources for teaching and learning. That must happen this time too if our universities are to be able to meet the challenges of the modern world.'

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb called the report 'robust and well argued', and said: 'It's ingenious to have come up with a system that lifts the level of income at which you start to repay the tuition fees, and where the interest isn't accruing.

'I think there's the basis here for a system that's fair, and my hope is that we can build a cross-party consensus.'

Great Yarmouth MP Brandon Lewis said it was 'progressive' and had 'interesting potential', while Norwich North MP Chloe Smith said: 'I think Lord Browne's conclusions show a lot of careful thought.'

She added: 'I agree that: more investment should be available for HE; students should get increased choice; everyone who has the ability and the aspiration to study should be able to; no-one should have to pay up-front; when payments are made they should be affordable; part-time students should get a better deal.'

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