In an unprecedented sign of public despair at the state of the government’s new tuition fees policy, a judge has ruled that two teenagers will be allowed to challenge the proposed changes to higher education in a full judicial review.

New Tuition Fees Policy

Since the announcement of the new tuition fees policy late last year, students, universities and campaigners have battled ceaselessly against the plans, which would raise tuition fees in the England to a maximum of £9000 from 2012, effectively transferring the cost of university degrees from the government to the individual student. Degrees currently cost just over one third of this price, meaning that student debt would effectively be trebled.

Tuition Fees Protests

There has been a public outcry since government promises that only a tiny minority of universities would charge the maximum fee have completely failed to materialise, with almost all top universities setting out plans to charge £9000. Some half a million protesters marched on Westminster earlier this year to express their anger at the plans. Now protesters claim that under the new system social mobility and fair access to education will be irretrievably damaged, as students from poorer backgrounds will be hugely deterred from studying for a degree by the sky-high costs.

Student Loans

However, the government is likely to argue that financial background is not a determining factor in whether or not a student can afford a degree, as loans are available to all students to cover the full cost of tuition, and are only required to be paid back once a graduate is earning a substantial wage. In addition, all loans will be written off after 30 years, prompting speculation that the percentage of students who will actually pay back their full loan may be as low as 25%. The government will claim that this system means a fair opportunity for students from any background to study for a degree, as the employment that follows will give them the earning power to pay back the debt.

Social Mobility

But campaigners fear that the government is missing the point. The students making the high court appeal assert that the new tuition fees scheme contravenes human rights law by its failure fully to take into account the needs and opportunities of poorer students. Paul Shiner, the lawyer representing them, claims that their case will challenge “the government’s bare-faced agenda to make our society one based on elitism and wealth”.

Graduate Debt and Living Costs

Their point is that it is short sighted to assume that just because a poorer student does not have to pay tuition fees up-front they will not be put off by the overwhelming price tag. Many young people from households where money is very tight would baulk at the risk of shouldering such an enormous debt when the current recessive economy means that graduate employment is by no means guaranteed. On top of this, many poorer families simply will not be able to pay for maintenance and living fees such as accommodation for a three year degree, or cover the loss of three years extra earning potential.

Student Support Slashed

The government asserts that loans and bursaries are available to help poorer students cope with these extra costs, but the statistics show that even this support has been drastically slashed as part of the recent budget cuts. To make matters even worse, the government has also withdrawn a vast percentage of its Education Maintenance Allowance funding, meaning that many students from disadvantaged backgrounds will now not even have financial support to complete sixth form studies, let alone proceed to university.

The students taking the battle to the High Court, Callum Hurley and Katy Moore, are just 16 and 17 years old, but they feel strongly that it is important to stand up and defend the rights of every member of their generation to have access to a good education, regardless of their financial and social background.