The opinions expressed below are opinions of the authors cited, and are not official statements from either The University of Birmingham or The School of Computer Science

This directory includes a letter I sent on 21st Jan 2004 to Lynne Jones MP
who is opposed to the top-up fee proposal.

The letter is here:

Comments received from people who have read my letter are below.
Further comments received will be added here, if the authors give permission.

NB Nothing on this web site represents official views or policies of the University of Birmingham or the School of Computer Science.
Quoted letters from others do not necessarily represent my views.
Only the named authors are responsible for the views presented.

Comments Received

    From Wed Jan 21 16:35:45 2004
    Date: Wed, 21 Jan 2004 16:35:44 +0000 (GMT)
    From: Tim Williams 
            [Research Associate]
    To: Aaron Sloman 
    Subject: Re: letter to my MP about top-up fees

    Aaron, if you want something else to mention regarding joined up thinking,
    you could mention that the whole issue of the student fees has been
    considered in total isolation to other financial factors which new
    graduates have to face, namely current sky high house prices and the fact
    that we are being told we now have to save vast ammounts of money for
    pensions, starting as soon as we start work if we are to stand any chance
    of getting a decent retirement. I haven't done the sums, but it wouldn't
    surprise me if in some cases for people just over the re-payment
    threshold, you could end up with a very high proportion of your after tax
    income simply going straight out again.

    This was mentioned by a med student in the newsnight debate on monday
    evening, the first time I have ever heard it mentioned on television,
    radio or newspapers.

    Tim W

    Tim Williams BSc MSc GIBiol - Research Associate (Autotrain Project)
    University of Birmingham School of Computer Science
    Home Page :
    Tel : +44 (0)121 414 2214 (ext 42214 on internal phone)


    From Wed Jan 21 17:35:48 2004
    From: "David J. Brooks" 
        [PhD student]
    To: "Aaron Sloman" 
    References: <>
    Subject: Re: letter to my MP about top-up fees
    Date: Wed, 21 Jan 2004 17:35:53 -0000

    Dear Aaron,

    [Omitted typos mentioned now fixed]

    My primary concern is with the motivation for the current top-up proposals,
    which I do not believe are aimed at minimising cost for high earners -
    rather, they are aimed at keeping an already floundering system in
    operation.  The government perceives this system to be good because it
    treats everyone as equals: everyone (or a majority of the population) will
    get good GCSEs, good AS levels, a degree, etc., in the name of making
    everyone feel happy that they are being treated equally.  In reality, this
    is useless, since it devalues these qualifications, and means that there is
    little chance of distinguishing people who are able from those who are not.
    However, it is a popular system, for the following reasons:

    - it reduces perceived class divides (since anyone can achieve the same
    - it reduces the typical British resentment of education (since it is no
      longer elitist)
    - it allows 50% of the population to do very little for three years except
      drink and socialise.
    - it reduces unemployment (two reasons: everyone can be a student instead;
      and inefficient civil administration tasks such as dealing with
      loans/top-up fees provide jobs).

    In reality, this happiness means:

    - we have lowered our standards to be inclusive rather than exclusive
    - without a challenging education, average intelligence will probably
    decline (have you seen the US version of Weakest Link?).
    - it becomes harder to discriminate good from bad (which makes it harder for
    any type of business/academia to make progress).

    My question is: what is wrong in being better than someone else at
    something?  It is often pride or prestige that drives people to better
    themselves, which can only be a good thing.

    We should not be striving for equality.  What the government should be
    aiming at is equal *opportunities*: that is, where people are good at doing
    something, they should be able to further their ability without being
    stopped short by costs, social pressure, etc.  This is a fundamentally
    different proposition to "everyone achieving the same standards".  Rather
    than lowering standards to be all-inclusive, we are much better off
    discriminating between people on the basis of some standards (be they
    academic, research oriented, vocationar, or anything else), and discovering
    and nurturing talent.  This seemed to be the purpose of the old
    grammar/comprehensive split, and also something that universities used to
    do.  We have moved on from this grand old aim of educating people, to
    putting education as a secondary concern after making money.

    I can give an example from within our own School, that disgusted me.  At the
    beginning of term I was told (by someone who will remain anonymous) that it
    is much better to have a really low learning curve (approaching nothing at
    all) so that we can keep minimise drop-out rates, and keep students in until
    their payment comes in.  I respect the person who said this to me, and I
    know that they would much rather educate than simply farm money, but that is
    what the current setup encourages.

    In short, I agree with some of your proposals, and will do anything I can to
    support you in this (any suggestions).  However, I feel your points about
    rethinking the whole system don't go far enough.  We need a fundamental
    analysis of the goals of national education, an a coherent policy for
    education based on this analysis - not just related to post-school
    education.  We need to regain our standards, and no amount of tax (stealth
    or otherwise) can make this happen.



    From Fri Jan 23 10:42:28 2004
    From: "Professor Noel Sharkey" 
    To: "'Aaron Sloman'" 
    Subject: RE: the top-up fees debate -- what isn't said
    Date: Fri, 23 Jan 2004 10:42:05 -0000
    Organization: University of Sheffield

    Dear Aaron,

    Good for you! I strongly concur with much of your letter and some for
    personal reasons. I am happy to have my comments used in whatever way
    you choose.

    I am from a strong working class background where debt would not have
    been an option. I was also one of your Late Category entering university
    at age 28yrs having left school at 15yrs. I only did it through a desire
    for scholarship - not to get a job. I am very clear that I would not
    have entered university under the current system of fees. Well at least
    that would have been one professor less to pay.

    In my 13 years (between school and university) working in many jobs,
    particularly building sites, I met many very clever people - some of the
    smartest were general labourers who swept floors for a living because of
    sheer frustration. This is a very poor way to use talent that did not
    happen to fit in with the school education system for one reason or
    another (like myself). It was hard enough for me nearly 30 years ago but
    now it would be next to impossible and, if the top up fees become a
    reality, it would not be a possibility at all.

    best regards,

    Noel Sharkey
    Professor of Computer Science
    EPSRC Senior Media Fellow
    University of Sheffield
    voicemail: +44 (0)114 2221803
    fax:       +44 (0)114 2221810


    From Fri Jan 23 10:47:47 2004
    To: Aaron Sloman 
    Subject: Re: the top-up fees debate -- what isn't said
    Date: Fri, 23 Jan 2004 10:47:50 +0000
    From: Jon Crowcroft 

    well said...

    Comments for you to add to your web if you like

    Irrespective of ethics, has anyone looked at the available income and
    its distribution over the population over the next 5-10 years, from
    the proposed 50% of people who the government wish to go to University?

    If the idea is that Universities are mainly serving middle-class and
    wealthy people, then the income currently attracted is already at a maximum from
    them - the increase from 40% to 50% will be drawn largely from groups
    who haev no income. Therefore the mechanism of a means tested fee will
    be implemented mainly on people who would simply pay more if the base
    tax rate was raised, and not on the new people - the cost advantage of
    raising the money through the Inland Revenue is simple efficiency - it
    does away with several iniquities that will be inevitable if someone is
    assessed on their parents means before they go to unviersity, and then
    pays back after, if their income is high enough (this is clear if you
    think about the possible upward and downward trends that could affect
    various families and various careers).

    Another problem with the fees mechanism is that it creates an
    expectation that the Universities will raise some money through fees and
    some from the central tax - this creates an opportunity for the Treasury
    to put pressure on the Department for Education to reduce the central
    allocation in favour of fees, which is not feasible when the entire
    source of revenue is from central taxation. It is inevitable that this
    will happen, when you look at past attempts at mixed economies.

    A third problem with the fees mechanism is the notion that the "user"
    gained an unfair advantage by going to University-  if we compare the
    many Physics graduates in the world of insurance today, they could have
    becoem accountants day one, like their colleagues. However, they chose
    to study (perhaps to PhD level) and lose income from school leaving age
    until the time when they switch to accountancy. There are many such
    career trends. The loss of earnings is hard to compute. But what is
    clear is that it is not a always a gain to go to University, and this is
    not allowed for in the scheme whatsoever. What is particulalry ironic is
    that the amongst largest employers of graduates  are the Health Service
    and the Education System - if the people who graduate earn more from the
    state, but have to repay their fees, and this is set against loans from
    the City, the state is effectively moving money from the state to the

    Finally, as has been said time and again, central taxation is to support
    services that are of national value. The National Governemtn asserts
    that it is of national priority to increase the number of people going
    to University - if this is the case, all in the nation benefit, not just
    those going. Why should those who would have gone anyway, alone foot the bill
    for those who wouldn't have gone without this policy? It is clear that
    all who can pay, should. As has been said time and again, an educated
    population is a national resource.

    As you say, the proposals are completely irrelevant to the actual requirements of
    the Universities, and so I will not rehearse those arguments you have
    already made well.




    From Fri Jan 23 10:48:34 2004
    From: Mark Steedman 
    Date: Fri, 23 Jan 2004 10:48:36 +0000
    Organization: School of Informatics, The University of Edinburgh
    Subject: Re: the top-up fees debate -- what isn't said

    See also the leader in today's Economist.


    Mark Steedman
    School of Informatics
    University of Edinburgh
    2 Buccleuch Place
    Scotland, United Kingdom

    tel:   (0)131 650 4631
    Fax:   (0)131 650 6626

    From Fri Jan 23 15:53:23 2004
    Date: Fri, 23 Jan 2004 15:53:53 +0000 (GMT)
    From: Peter Ross 
    To: Aaron Sloman 
    Subject: Re: the top-up fees debate -- what isn't said

    Dear Aaron,                                                Jan 23 2004

    I read your letter to Lynne Jones with great interest.  I am not in
    favour of variable top-up fees, nor even in favour of a system that
    taxes the graduates later. Your letter asked whether the cost of
    administering the proposed system had been costed. I have little doubt
    that it has been costed, but one of my concerns is on what basis the
    whole scheme has been costed; the details are not readily available.
    The Prime Minister and others have played upon the fact that the cost,
    to those who just qualify to make repayments, will be around ten
    pounds per week and surely that's not much?

    However, the costs to those earning more than the threshold does go up
    remarkably quickly, and like many others I foresee that many graduates
    will have trouble keeping up repayments and also starting a family or
    living sufficiently above penury not to consider leaving for a
    better-paid life abroad if they can. But there are further factors to
    consider. Once the participation rate of 50% has been reached in
    England and Wales, employers won't need to pay much of a premium for
    degree holders, so like others I am skeptical about the argument that
    a degree will continue to be a value-for-money advantage in the longer
    run. The money paid back by degree holders will also flow to
    universities (it is claimed), and therefore won't be circulating in
    the general economy to the same extent because it seems to me that the
    money circulation through universities can be more sluggish than
    through other routes; it gets tied up in property and in debt
    commitments, for example. So I suspect the taxing of future graduates
    will have some bad knock-on effects on important parts of the UK economy,
    and I'd like to see the figures on that.

    Personally, I would rather that income tax was increased generally.
    Goverment thinking seems to value degrees in terms of quantifiable
    money and to look on universities as providers of training rather than
    education; the economic and social benefits of having a generally
    well-educated population seem high to me, but almost impossible to
    quantify well and unequivocally in financial terms. The system needs
    money, but rather than "users pay" I'd prefer a policy of
    "beneficiaries pay", and that's all of us. And universities could be
    asked to do more to make that clearly so.

    Your letter sketches out a post-school education framework. I'm not
    sure I would agree with all of it, but I agree that the current level
    of debate is depressing. Scotland is held up as an example of a
    country that has achieved a 50% participation rate. Tom Knight, chief
    executive of the Association of Scottish Colleges, makes some nice
    points in a letter in today's (Glasgow) Herald. Although Scotland has
    a 51.5% participation rate, as measured by the Age Participation Index
    for those under 21, a hefty proportion of those are doing a higher
    national qualification (HNC, in one year, or HND, in two years) at
    further education colleges rather than at universities. When mature
    students and part-timers are included, FE colleges are the entry point
    into HE for around 60% of students. There are schemes whereby
    students do their first two years in an FE college and then proceed to
    a university for the other two. This contrasts with what seems to be
    the thinking down south, that universities should introduce two-year
    foundation degrees as a way of increasing the participation rate.

    It is common to point to US universities as models of what UK
    universities should be like. One of the major differences is, of
    course, that many US univerities have over the last decade of so
    generated very substantial endowments which provide 5-30% of their
    income (see,9830,964306,00.html
    for some facts on this). In 2002, at least 45 US universities had
    endowments of over a billion dollars each, and this year the value of
    their endowments has been rising, after falls in the last couple of
    years; in the UK, only the three best-endowed managed to reach even
    one-tenth of that amount. It seems to me that many UK universities are
    not yet in a position to attract substantial endowments and although
    the white paper says the government wants to do what it can to promote
    endowments, it's not doing much that's useful. Maybe, if universities
    manage to become attractive to endowments, the horribly long-term
    strategy of taxation of graduates might not seem so essential.


    Peter Ross

    [Feel free to add this to the website if you wish.]


    From Sat Jan 24 19:03:15 2004
    From: "Martyn Thomas" 
    To: "Aaron Sloman" 
    Subject: RE: your letter
    Date: Sat, 24 Jan 2004 19:04:23 -0000


    Good letter. I share your point of view.

    In my view, university tuition fees are unfair, illogical and dangerous.

    They are unfair because the expansion of universities was based on the need
    for a modern economy to have many more people educated to degree level.
    Better and wider education is a public good and we should all pay for it
    according to our ability, through taxation. It is unfair to put the burden
    on to the students who will already pay for any increase in their salaries
    through higher income tax. It is doubly unfair to put the burden just on
    those students who do not qualify for financial support, most of whom will
    not have gained any direct benefit from the expansion of university courses.

    The Government, rightly, has recently increased the stipend that is paid to
    students studying for PhDs, because it is important to the UK that we
    increase the number of our brightest students who stay on to do research
    degrees. Yet the arguments that have been used to justify to-up fees for
    undergraduates would apply with equal force to PhD students where the
    opposite policy has been implemented. This is illogical.

    Accepting the Government's case - that those who benefit most directly
    should pay - is dangerous. This argument could be used to justify charging
    sixth-form students, patients using the health service, or citizens using
    libraries and museums. Is this really the mean-minded society we want our
    children to inherit?


    Martyn Thomas

Maintained by

Aaron Sloman
Updated 24 Jan 2004