Ignorance is bliss?

Observations on top-up fees (2)

Voters are overwhelmingly opposed to the government's proposals for top-up fees. An exclusive YouGov poll for the New Statesman this month finds that only 30 per cent support the policy, while 56 per cent oppose it - a margin that is virtually unaltered since early December. (Respondents were told: "Tony Blair wants to allow universities to charge students tuition fees of up to £3,000 a year. He says this is needed to fund higher education properly. Critics say this will lead to young people leaving college with very large debts.")

But do voters understand how the new system will work? YouGov put six statements to respondents and asked in each case whether it was true or untrue. The table above shows the responses. How often were the respondents right?

Statement 1 is true. All upfront payments (currently £1,125 a year for most students) will be abolished. This is the most widely known fact about the planned system. Even so, barely half the public gave the correct answer.

Statement 2 is untrue. The interest rate paid by graduates will be tied to the rate of inflation, currently roughly 2 per cent a year. Mortgage rates are typically around 5 per cent. Only one in three people gave the correct answer.

Statement 3 is true. Full-time students from the poorest 30 per cent of all families will not have to pay any fees, so they will not be affected by any increases. The new system of grants will make many better off than they are today. Again, only one in three gave the right answer.

Statement 4 is untrue. Students from the poorest families will pay no tuition fees, whichever university they attend. Once more, only one in three understands this.

Statement 5 is untrue. Graduates will pay 9 per cent on earnings above £15,000 per year. Therefore, a graduate earning £20,000 will pay £450 a year. Just one person in eight knows that the cost to such a graduate will be less than £1,000.

Statement 6 is true. Current graduates pay 9 per cent on earnings above £10,000 a year. When the new system comes into effect, their threshold will also be raised to £15,000. So graduates who are already paying off loans will find that their monthly repayments fall by £37.50. Only 8 per cent know this - not surprisingly, because the government has made little attempt to get the point across.

The good news for the government is that those people who understand the three key things about its plans - that there will be no upfront fees, that the interest rate charged on loans will be exceptionally low, and that students from poor families will not lose out - overwhelmingly support the new system. The bad news is that this group comprises just 15 per cent of the electorate.

Our figures suggest that the single most important message for the government to get across is that students from poor families won't suffer. Those who know this are 2:1 in favour of the new system, while those who think it's not true are 15:1 against. The other statements also produce clear differences in attitude between those who give "correct" and those who give "incorrect" answers, but not to anything like the same extent.

The raw data in the YouGov/NS survey was weighted to reflect the social and political composition of the electorate as a whole

What do you know about top-up fees?

Here are some statements about the government's plans for student fees and loans. For each one, please say whether you believe it to be true or untrue.

1 "Under the proposed system, no British undergraduate will

need to pay any tuition fees until after they have graduated"

2 "The interest rate that future graduates will be charged on

their student loans will be at least as high as those paid by homeowners to mortgage-lenders"

3 "Taking everything into account - fees, loans, bursaries and

government support - students from the poorest families will be no worse off under the new system than they are today"

4 "Students from the poorest families will have to pay more to attend such universities as Oxford or Cambridge than to attend universities that charge lower fees"

5 "Under the new system, graduates earning £20,000 a year will have to find at least £1,000 a year towards paying off their student loans"

6 "Recent graduates who are already paying off student loans

will find that their monthly repayments fall under the new system"