Neil Hudson: Uni fees should be fairer

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Inevitably, at this time of year, we get around to discussing the legitimacy of student university fees, which can now be up to £9,000 a year.

To me, this seems crazy, because I am old enough to have benefited from free university education. I say ‘free’ but I still came out after three years just over £10,000 in debt, although most of that was incurred by me deciding it was a good idea to go to LA. Twice.

I struggled with the debt for years after I left university but 20 years and two kids down the line, I’m glad I had the chance to go where the wind blew me, so-to-speak.

Students of today, however, are looking at more like £50,000 of debt, assuming they pay the full £9,000 a year and then add on living costs. Perhaps in amongst all that, they will find the money to enjoy the odd drink.

I well remember when university tuition fees were introduced (under a Labour government no less) and the limit was set at £1,000 a year, with ministers coo-ing that this would be an absolute limit, whereas today it seems pretty much the norm that most universities charge as much as they can.

But just setting the question to one side for a moment and assuming fees remain, there’s another question which ought to be address and it is this: are some degrees worth more than others?

What I mean by this is that students taking part in a biology degree may well end up at some point getting hands on with a cadaver, science students may get to use the latest in high-tech nano-technology, while sports students could get to use advanced training equipment, all of which is very expensive to arrange and run. And those students will pay £3,000 a year for the privilege.

Meanwhile, you’re average philosophy or English lit students will spend most of their time with their heads buried in books. And they will also pay £3,000. So, one has to consider whether the English lit student, who consumes far fewer resources during their time at university, is paying over the odds. Or perhaps they are ‘subsidising’ their fellow students in the more hands-on degrees, in which case the system is still unfair, because why would anyone commit to decades of personal debt based on some ill-defined notion of magnanimity? You wouldn’t. And shouldn’t.

Ergo, if we are going to have fees, degrees should be weighted accordingly and those doing courses which consume fewer resources should pay less.

Alex Newman, partner at Irwin Mitchell in Leeds

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