The start of A-level exams brings university tuition fees into sharp focus, says financial columnist Peter Sharkey.

With A-level exams scheduled to start on May 13, the time for revision is almost over. Coursework and projects have, by now, been submitted; there's just a clutch of final written papers to complete before A-level students can look forward to chilling out and enjoying long, hot summer days.

There's not a huge amount of time to relax though as exam results are published on 15 August, at which point futures - or at least the next 3-4 years - become clearer as the final vestiges of school life are superseded by degree courses as the latest cohort of 18 and 19-year-olds head off to university. Mothers across the land are already busy stocking up on their supply of Kleenex tissues.

University life is an eye-opener for most first year undergraduates, almost all of whom find themselves parachuted into a world where, possibly for the first time, they're responsible for every aspect of daily life, from getting up on time and down to a hall of residence breakfast, to ensuring there's enough cash left over to enjoy their university's buoyant social scene.

Of course, getting in to university is just the first piece of the higher education jigsaw. It's at this point that tuition fees and other outgoings, such as accommodation, food, books and a host of additional 'extras' must be paid for.

Ever since they were introduced by Tony Blair's Labour government in 1998, university tuition fees have been a point of contention, though this hasn't stopped their inexorable rise. In fact, over the last 20 years, they have surged more than nine-fold; today, they stand at £9,250. Little wonder that by the time they graduate from university, young people in their early twenties have accumulated average tuition fee debt of more than £41,000. Hardly the ideal way to start working life.

Students worry about such levels of debt and while the Treasury could possibly write it all off one day, there's absolutely no sign of that happening soon. Instead, hidebound with what most 22 or 23-year-olds consider enormous debt, it's hardly a surprise that, as they're compelled to repay it, many cannot make it onto the property ladder until they're in their 30s or even 40s.

As tuition and other university-related costs have soared over the past two decades, so older generations, those with plenty of value within their homes, have stepped in to help. It's a trend likely to gather pace over the foreseeable future.

For an increasing number of parents and grandparents, equity release has proved a convenient, relatively straight forward way of helping family members get through university without being saddled with colossal debts it'll take years to repay.

The equity release process enables homeowners aged 55 and over to free up some of the accumulated value in their home and receive a tax-free lump sum to use as they wish. A large proportion of people are using this money to help fund a family member through university, effectively paying all or part of their tuition fees.

There are, as you might expect, strict rules governing this increasingly popular means of accessing the wealth built up in homeowners' property. They're designed to protect owners and ensure that when they take out a lifetime mortgage, for instance (the most popular method of equity release), there are no monthly repayments to make.

The rules also ensure that people who take advantage of equity release continue to own their home until they and their spouse or partner either dies or moves into permanent, long-term care.

In just three months, A-level results will determine the immediate future for tens of thousands of younger people. Congratulations will be extended and yes, tears will be shed. In the aftermath of exam results, few of those preparing to embark on the most life-changing experience of them all and leave for university are unlikely to spend too much time worrying how it's all going to be paid for; a prevailing sense of euphoria and achievement will delay such thoughts for a while, at least.

However, the time will soon come when university costs must be addressed, which is why thousands of homeowners who know a family member in a similar position are actively considering the benefits of equity release.

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For more financial advice, check out Peter Sharkey's regular column, The Week In Numbers.