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Observations on top-up fees

Education ministers like to make university top-up fees sound as though they are really, despite appearances, a measure that will help the poor. Look, they say, at students in further education, doing lower-level, often vocational courses. They tend to be poorer than university students, doing lower-level courses leading to less well paid jobs. Should we not be helping them instead of pampered middle-class undergraduates?

Ministers do not explain how they propose to help college students. And that is not surprising. Buried deep in little-publicised papers at the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) - the quango that channels government money to colleges - is the startling truth, entombed in the language politicians use when they don't wish to be understood . When they have finished putting the squeeze on undergraduates for higher fees, the government is going to start on college students.

The arguments will be the same. Today, ministers tell us that university graduates earn higher salaries, so ought to pay higher fees. Tomorrow, this sentence will come off page 96 of last year's skills white paper and into the mouths of ministers: "To make up the fees shortfall by increasing government funding is not . . . equitable, given the substantial benefits which learners and employers derive from higher skills and qualifications." Though it may be worded more crisply.

Last month, under questioning by a parliamentary committee, Ivan Lewis, minister for young people and adult skills, said: "We will be looking to raise fees where appropriate, from employers and, in some cases, more than has been the case in the past, from individuals." In fact, there are no plans to force employers to pay. As the Association of Colleges has told MPs: "Employers are widely acknowledged to be very reluctant to spend money on training their staff, and there is little in the skills strategy to encourage employers to do more." So expect the bill to be met by individuals or, as we know them, students.

The details are being worked out in secret by a joint working group of the DfES and the LSC. It has been meeting since last summer, and is due to publish proposals soon, though we can safely assume that it will wait until the row over university fees has subsided.

College students over the age of 19 theoretically pay a quarter of the full cost of their courses, unless an employer can be persuaded to do so. But many colleges do not charge this amount. The proposals coming out of the working group would raise the student fee from a quarter to perhaps a half of the course costs, and force all colleges to charge it. This is called "introducing a new national framework for the setting of fees in further education".

There will be exceptions. The government will identify national skills shortages, and if you are studying one of those skills, you will not pay fees. But anyone who already has A-levels will pay fees regardless. The Association of Colleges estimates that this redistribution of public money will force colleges either to double fees or close courses.

The question of students aged between 16 and 18 will almost certainly be left until new Labour's third term. Just like the universities, colleges face a funding crisis. The number of 16- to 18-year-olds is increasing by 1 per cent a year, and more of them are staying on in school or college.

For the moment, the LSC is taking money from students over 19 to keep 16- to 18-year-olds at college without fees. How long will it be before we hear that this is unfair, and that 16- to 18-year-olds must pay fees, too? And if 16- to 18-year-olds at college pay fees, it would obviously be wrong for those still at school to be exempt. Are we witnessing the slow destruction of free state education?