Students will be hit by cuts

STEVE DOWNES Education chiefs were last night accused of jeopardising the future of thousands of Norfolk teenagers as plans for a big hike in college transport charges were poised for approval.

STEVE DOWNES

Education chiefs were last night accused of jeopardising the future of thousands of Norfolk teenagers as plans for a big hike in college transport charges were poised for approval.

Student leaders promised they would not “let it lie” - and predicted the move would be the tipping point for many young people who struggle to afford higher education.

There were also fears that if the increases were passed, it could have a negative effect on Norfolk's notoriously low post-16 education stay-on rate.

Almost 3,000 people, including 600 students, responded to public consultation about the controversial plan for a 50pc rise in charges for most students - more than £100 per year.

Other proposals include getting students with learning difficulties or disabilities to pay the same as other students for the first time, and introducing a system to deal with “exceptional circumstances” - giving students temporary help in an emergency.

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Opinion was split 50-50 on the most contentious proposal, the 50pc hike in fees, and next Monday's Norfolk County Council cabinet is being advised to approve all aspects of the plan.

Last night Jonathan Lovatt, president of Norwich City College's Student Union, said: “Loads of students filled in the consultation documents to say they didn't want the subsidy cut.

“We think the cuts are really drastic and would mean that many students would not be able to afford to come to college. We are really disappointed that after all this consultation they have decided to go ahead anyway.”

He added: “We are not going to let this lie. Norfolk's staying on rate is really low, and the 16-19-year-olds all get this bus pass. It's going to affect students coming from a long way away. It will also affect students on benefits.”

Rosalie Monbiot, cabinet member for children's service at the council, defended the plans.

She said: “It is a discretionary service but we are committed to supporting all eligible students in a way that is both fair and affordable in the current financial climate.

“Because of the poor financial settlement from central government, we are having to make £7m in savings in children's services and that means some tough decisions.

“We would rather not have had to consider these proposals, but we were left with no choice.”

She said the changes to post-16 transport support would protect other services, including preventive teams working with at risk children, new children's homes and respite units for children with disabilities.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said: “This is a retrograde step. Increasing costs is a direct tax on rural students. It's counterproductive and will hit families on low incomes hard.

“It will act as a disincentive to people to stay on, which is precisely the opposite of what we want to achieve.”

Around 5,500 post-16 students benefit from transport support provided by the county council, at a total cost to the council of £3.4m. The proposed changes would save £900,000 per year.

The three-month consultation included students, council taxpayers, business people and older people.

Among the responses, a number of people said students from low income backgrounds should be exempt from paying because they “often face the most pressure from friends and family to leave education and earn money as soon as education ceases to be compulsory”.

Half of the respondents said no to the proposal to increase the rate from 33pc to 50pc of the average annual cost of mainstream transport - up from £212 to £318 per year.

Half also said no to charging students from low income families 25pc of the cost for the first time - £159 per year.

Six out of 10 people who responded to the consultation agreed that students with learning difficulties or disabilities should pay the same as other students - £318 per year.

The latest plans come 10 months after the county council proposed the withdrawal of all post-16 transport subsidies. The idea was dropped two months later amid fury from students, college leaders and parents.

The report to cabinet said an analysis had been carried out of 27 other local authorities' post-16 transport policies.

It found Norfolk's proposed changes from 2007/8 would put the county in the middle of the table of student contributions. Among those, Suffolk's students would be paying £336 per year in 2007/8.