Is it right that we’re making so much fuss over tuition fees? – No

Photograph: Lucy Lamb

University has gone through a mass expansion in this country in the last 20 years. The number of students attending has rocketed and tuition fees haven’t put people off. In fact, since a small blip in the figures (caused entirely by the scaremongering of the NUS) when the rise in tuition fees were implemented, the number of students has actually risen by 9% to 446,000 for 2013. This immediately makes a laughing stock of the idea that tuition fees will put people off going to university.

As we accept the expansion in university numbers we also have to accept the fact that the funding for institutions had to be curtailed. The government in previous generations were able to fund university education for all who could go because the number was so much smaller. Under the system, the government gives universities our tuition fees which we gradually pay back over a period of time. The system is good for students as the payments are proportional to your income. If you earn over £21,000, for example, you pay back 9% of your income until the debt is paid off.  If you never earn over £21,000 you will never have to repay a penny and that threshold will rise with average earnings in 2017 so it will always be based upon average earnings. Tuition fees are not like traditional debt; you cannot lose your house over them and student finance won’t be sending round debt collectors to collect payment.  They are essentially a graduate tax in all but name now, something which ironically the NUS had been calling for at the time of the increase in fees instead of fees. They were protesting the very thing they actually wanted.

There are far bigger problems for students to worry about rather than tuition fees. The maintenance loan is one of these things. Unlike tuition fees this does actually affect the student’s ability to live at and attend university. While the loan has been extended massively to poorer students it has left students with parents who earn average incomes without enough finance. This, unlike tuition fees, does affect the ability for students to choose the university they want. Accommodation costs are spiralling upwards which means many loans don’t even cover the rent for rooms on campus let alone living costs. Lancaster is just one example of a university upgrading the on campus accommodation and thus the cost of it. This has led to students having to dip into their overdraft by far more than they would like to while others build up cash reserves due to the amount of funding they receive.

A second serious problem we need to worry about is the number of students who do go on to degree level. Nowadays, it is nothing particularly special to say that “I have a degree”.  Before it was a badge of honour, a gateway towards significantly enhanced prospects, but this is no longer the case.  Whereas it still makes sense to go to university, the watering down of the entry requirements to attend an institution which offers degrees mean that attaining a degree isn’t what it used to be. This again is a far bigger worry and problem than the tuition fees saga we seem to go through every year. In an ideal world tuition would be free, but unfortunately we live in the real world and as far as that goes tuition fees in their current format are a good deal for students. Instead of being deceived by big numbers we should be concentrating on the real issues such as student finance which we all suffer with and the downgrading of degrees.