Uni or not Uni? The question facing Norfolk parents and their children

'I can't afford university' has become the go-to phrase for would-be students worried about rising tuition fees and spiralling debt.

And there is no doubt the changes set to hit higher education from September are going to require a significant shift in the way learners think about their education.

But, according to UEA admissions director Mark Barlow, that shift should not automatically lead to the assumption that they can no longer afford to study the course they want.

He is urging anyone considering a degree to look very carefully at the real financial implications – including the rate they will pay back their debt and the support available – before making any rash decisions.

With just a month to go until the deadline for university applications, Mr Barlow said the headline-grabbing figures telling students the course they have worked so hard to get on will cost them �9,000 a year are bound to scare a lot of them.

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The admissions director, who works to attract learners from around the world to come and study in Norwich, said: 'The government is asking 17-year-olds to get their heads round something that's very complex even for an adult.'

He admitted the fee increases which, from September 2012, will see students paying up to �6,000 more per year for tuition on top of ever-increasing living costs, will require a change in thinking for most people.

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As well as deciding which course they want to pursue – from English literature and maths to film studies and occupational therapy – and where they want to study, both teenagers and mature students will inevitably factor in how much it is going to set them back.

'It's that added step that probably wasn't there when I went to university – the financial package the university will offer you,' said Mr Barlow, who encourages learners to start looking at the fees as an investment.

'I wouldn't say it is necessarily going to be the best investment in the world for everybody but, for those students who are ambitious, it's going to give them a very good return on their investment.

'Most graduates accept they will be earning more to compensate them – and if they're not earning more, they won't be paying as much back, if at all.'

Ever since the higher fees were announced, the government has tried to placate would-be students with the thought that they would not have to pay back their fees and loans until after they have graduated and are earning more than �21,000.

But, with the prospect of tens of thousands of pounds of debt greeting them as they enter the world of work, learners have been understandably sceptical.

Now money-saving expert Martin Lewis has been brought in by ministers to help students get their heads round what the fee increases will really mean for them.

He readily acknowledges that graduates will be paying off their debt for much longer and could potentially pay back a lot more.

But he insists the reality 'isn't nearly as harsh as many fear'.

Speaking to students and parents earlier this year, he said: 'Tuition fees may be trebling, but that doesn't mean your costs are trebling.

'What matters to you is not what the fees are but how much you're actually going to pay towards them, what your real costs will be.

'There will be bursaries and fee waivers and the entire structure of the way you repay means many of you will not come close to paying your full tuition fees.'

Mr Lewis points to a few key facts to help students put the new fees in perspective.

Firstly, loans to cover fees and living costs will be given out up front and monthly repayments are set to work out lower than those of existing students currently paying around �3,000 a year to learn.

A graduate earning �25,000 will pay back just �30 a month.

There are also a wide range of government grants, bursaries and scholarships available – largely as a result of Westminster's requirement that universities charging more than �6,000 a year must use some of it to help widen participation – which do not have to be paid back.

The UEA is set to offer a choice of fee waivers or bursaries worth up to �3,000 to many students while on a number of NHS-funded courses – like nursing and physiotherapy – the fees are paid for them.

The final key point for Mr Lewis is that, after 30 years, the debt is wiped out no matter how much is still owed.

He says many will never pay everything back regardless of whether they are being charged �6,000 or �9,000 a year – meaning the latter does not necessarily cost more.

It is for that reason admissions boss Mr Barlow is urging would-be students to think first about the course they want to study and the campus experience they are looking for ahead of pondering the fees.

'We're trying to encourage students to think a bit wider – 75pc of graduate jobs are still open to people with any degree. You should be choosing something you're genuinely passionate about,' he said. 'It's hard to get through a three or four-year course on something you don't enjoy.'

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