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Blair Considers Abolition Of Fees.

Tuition fees may be abolished and maintenance grants reintroduced, it was announced, in an attempt by the government to boost the number of university students from low-income backgrounds.

Speaking at a conference, Prime Minister Tony Blair, disclosed governmental plans to review the current student funding system, which emerged in this year's election campaign as the most unpopular decision made by the Labour government.

The scheme has been welcomed by the NUS who have campaigned against the abolition of grants and the introduction of tuition fees since the decision was first instituted in 1997.

Announcing the proposal, Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, accepted fears that the current scheme may be deterring poorer students from attending university.  She said, "I recognize that for many low income families fear of debt is a real worry and could act as a barrier to higher education".

The announcement has come at a time when Labour support has been gradually declining.  Pressure from groups such as the NUS and the decision to scrap tuition fees has prompted Labour to re-think its vastly unpopular education system.

The devolved governments in Wales and Northern Ireland have announced their opposition to the scheme although as yet they lack the financial strength to break away from the system.

As with the current loan scheme, under the new proposal graduates would still be expected to pay money received through grants back to the government.  Graduates would pay off their grant through extra income tax in the 20-25 years after graduation.

All students would be required to pay graduate tax, or 'graduate repayment' as it is called by the government, except those whose courses begin before the scheme is introduced, regardless of whether they take out the grant or not.  The extra tax would be charged once the graduate was paying 22 pence income tax but government officials are adamant that the contribution would be small.

It is hoped that the scheme will mean that those who earn more after graduation will effectively subsidize graduates whose wages are less.

Details of the reform are still being finalized by the Department of Education but it is believed that two schemes are currently being considered.  The first plan is to make maintenance grants, abolished by Labour in 1997, available to all and charge a higher graduate tax.  The
second, most probable, idea is to means-test the grant and make the repayment tax lower.

The continuation of tuition fees is doubted as the government is uncertain that students will be willing to pay both during and after their scheme of study.  Loans will still be available to all students but at a far lower level than is currently available.

The new arrangements will not be put into action until September 2003 at the earliest but the announcement is certain to spark debate throughout the political and student body.

Article by Miranda Schunke

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