Row over

By Juliette MaxamTHE vice-chancellor of Essex University has been accused of “trivialising” student debt after he said paying back top-up tuition fees would only cost graduates the equivalent of two pints of beer a week.

By Juliette Maxam

THE vice-chancellor of Essex University has been accused of “trivialising” student debt after he said paying back top-up tuition fees would only cost graduates the equivalent of two pints of beer a week.

Professor Ivor Crewe, in his role as president of Universities UK, was commenting about a Government proposal to introduce top-up tuition fees of up to £3,000 to be paid back after graduation once a graduate is earning £15,000 a year or more.

He told a national newspaper: “A graduate who starts off at £18,000 a year in London will be paying back £5.30 a week - which is a couple of pints of beer.

“Now, most students could afford a couple of pints of beer when they were students, so they can afford to pay back a couple of pints after graduating.”

But Prof Crewe's remarks were immediately criticised by both student unions and teaching associations.

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Darren Jones, president of Essex University Students' Union, said: “We feel he was trivialising the issue. He's not showing he's in touch with students nationally or at Essex.

“He's encouraging a system where students will be shopping around for a degree. Under the new system students will be leaving university with debts of up to £21,000.”

Paul Mackney, general secretary of NATFHE, the University and College Lecturers' Union, also criticised Prof Crewe.

“To describe a potential debt of many thousands of pounds in terms of pints of beer a week is unworthy of someone who speaks on behalf of university vice-chancellors,” he said.

“If the Government is reducing 'spin', I hope it is not because they have found others to do the spinning for them.

“The truth is that top-up fees of £3,000 a year - and nobody expects that to remain the maximum - will send graduates into their working life with considerable debt. That's if they're not deterred from study in the first place.

“Some will face debts of £20,000 and more, including loans for their living costs. A first degree should not cost a second mortgage and the real deterrent effect of such debts should not be trivialized.”

Prof Crewe was not available for comment yesterday, but a Universities UK spokeswoman stressed he was referring to the additional cost to graduates represented by the proposed increase in tuition fees.

“Universities UK in no way wishes to downplay the issue of student hardship and indeed has carried out much work on this issue,” she said.

“Our organisation continues to lobby the Government strongly to reintroduce a higher maintenance grant - made available to a wider range of students - exactly so that those students most in need can be better supported.

“However, we are very clear that universities are in desperate need of additional funding if they are to continue to provide world-class higher education to an ever-growing number of students.

“We support the proposals for an increased personal contribution from graduates because we think it's fair to ask the direct beneficiaries of a university education to make some contribution towards the cost.

“One benefit of what's being proposed over the current system is that students or their families will no longer have to pay any fees upfront.”

juliette.maxam@eadt.co.uk

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