Human rights question over fees


Students in London protest against the hike in tuition fees, which may contravene human rights

Charging university students up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees may contravene human rights law.

The hike – agreed by MPs in the Commons last week – may be open to challenge because it could discriminate against poorer students.

A legal opinion, published by Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), says it is plain that students from less well-off backgrounds will not be able to pay back the debts incurred if fees hit this level.

Ethnic minority groups are over-represented in the poorer sections of UK society, it says, and so a disproportionate number of students from these groups could be prevented from going to university.

The opinion, by barristers at Matrix Chambers, says: “There are in our view concerns as to whether the proposed changes would pass muster given that the burden of proof is on the state to justify retrogressive steps.

“In our view, there appear to have been alternative means open to the Government which might have reduced the likely disproportionate impact. In particular, it is not clear whether the likely advantages of a graduate tax or the possibility of means-testing in setting fees, as regards access to university by lower-income students (this because it avoids the problem of debt) have been adequately taken into account.”

PIL solicitor Phil Shiner said: “The coalition Government need to take urgent legal advice as they have clearly not thought about the human rights implications of their proposal. Whole tranches of our society will now be excluded from higher education. It is blindingly obvious that using the so-called financial crisis as a guise, this Government has set out to permanently change higher education to one based on elitism.”

But a spokesman for the Department for Business Innovation and Skills said: “Our package is designed to extend social mobility, not restrict it.

“It is irresponsible to claim that people from poorer backgrounds will not be able to go to university. Indeed, independent analysis by the IFS has shown that our proposals are more progressive than the current system.

“Under our plans, there are no upfront fees and graduates don’t make any repayments until they are in well-paid employment. There is a more generous maintenance package than now, as well as a new National Scholarship Programme targeting prospective students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

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