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THERE was always the prospect that the Government would see the recommendations of Lord Browne's review of higher education funding in England as an opportunity to reduce expenditure and, despite some modification of Lord Browne's proposals, this seems to be precisely what has happened. It is not clear as yet whether universities will be able to obtain enough through the increase in tuition fees to compensate for the reduction in funding from government that has, up until now, been provided for teaching purposes, but what is obvious is that students will bear the brunt of the cuts.

The Government still has to clarify aspects of its plans but one thing that is certain is that most students will have to pay more. Quite a lot more, in fact. From the academic year beginning in 2012, university tuition fees are set to rise from £3290 a year to between £6000 and £9000 a year, which will make a difference of between £8130 and £17,130 for students taking a three-year course. For courses like veterinary medicine, which last longer than that, the extra cost will be higher – between £13,550 and £28,550 for the five-year course at most veterinary schools, and between £16,260 and £34,260 for the six-year course at Cambridge. It will be up to universities to decide where between £6000 and £9000 they set their fees. However, it is likely to be at the upper end of the scale in the case of a veterinary course, given the demand for places, the cost of running the course and the strong academic reputations of the universities involved.

These changes apply to universities in England; what will happen elsewhere has still to become clear.

Explaining the Government's plans in the House of Commons last week, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, described them as ‘progressive’, which usually means moving forward but in current parliamentary parlance seems to mean not deliberately designed to hit poor people hardest. Under the plans, universities will be able to raise annual tuition fees, currently capped at £3290, to a ‘threshold’ level of £6000. In exceptional cases, universities will be able to charge higher contributions, up to a limit of £9000, subject to meeting tougher conditions on widening participation and fair access. Students from households earning less than £25,000 a year will be entitled to an annual maintenance grant of £3250, those from households earning between £25,000 and £42,000 will be entitled to a partial grant, and maintenance loans will be available to all. In addition, the Government plans to establish a £150 million national scholarship programme targeted at bright students from poor backgrounds.

Graduates will have to start paying back their loans once they start earning more than £21,000 a year, with the repayments being 9 per cent of their income above this £21,000 threshold. Those earning £21,000 to around £41,000 will be charged interest at a rate on a scale reaching a maximum of the Retail Price Index (RPI) plus 3 per cent, which will be the rate paid by those earning more than this. The Government intends to include mechanisms to ensure that those on higher salaries cannot reduce their contribution by paying off their loans early. For those who remain at the other end of the income scale, any outstanding repayments will be written off after 30 years.

For veterinary students, the potential for accumulating debt will be further exacerbated by the intensive nature of the course and requirement for extramural studies, which makes it difficult to earn extra money by working part time or in vacations. By any reckoning, their debts on graduation will be substantially higher than at present, which will inevitably affect career choices and make it more difficult to attract veterinarians into research and some of the potentially less well paid areas of practice where their skills are nevertheless needed. The increased debt will also add to the financial burden on graduates at a time in their lives when they might be hoping to take out a mortgage or invest in a practice business.

As for attracting applicants, the veterinary schools have worked hard to widen participation in recent years, with some success. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the demographic and socioeconomic mix of the veterinary profession reflects that of society as a whole and, given the cost of the course relative to earning potential after graduating, particularly compared with some other professions, there appears to be little in the plans that would make it any easier for the schools to attract more applicants from poorer backgrounds.

The Government may see its package of proposals as progressive but, as far as the veterinary profession is concerned, they could set things back significantly.

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