I was in the last batch of students to enjoy a free education. Graduating in 1989 from my first degree, I received a full, means tested grant with my tuition fees included. What’s more, my parents got tax relief on any contribution they gave me under Deed of Covenant rules, I was able to sign on and claim income support during the long, summer holiday and had my rent paid through housing benefit. As the 90s crested the horizon, all that disappeared – almost overnight.
Tax covenants between individuals were binned in 1988. The Conservative government decreased the value of grants and began phasing in “Top Up” loans in 1990. Housing Benefit was withdrawn from students in the same year. That was soon followed by the introduction of tuition fees and full loans.
Today, a CBI report suggests that Universities aren’t charging students enough for courses. This comes at time when I am a student once again – so it’s no surprise that I don’t agree with their statement. It may be a surprise that I disagree with the main argument of those in opposition to the CBI; that raising fees will prevent anyone who wants an education from going to University.
Well, that’s just a silly argument. Why should everyone be entitled to a University education?
You may have forgotten this, but there was a time when degrees had real value, when your bog standard BA (hons) meant something. Now it’s an entry level qualification. And, though I’m ostensibly still a Labour voter, I believe it’s largely the fault of left wing educational policy.
Labour have been consistent in one aspect of their manifesto over the years; education is a right that should be available to everyone. They introduced the original maintenance grant system in 1946 (made mandatory by a Tory government in 1962). Labour established degree awarding Polytechnics in the 1960s as vocational alternatives to the academic focus of the old Universities. Then, in the 90s, New Labour rewrote the old dictum to reflect their love of the free market. Higher education became seen as a right that should be available to everyone who can afford it.
Both positions, the original and the amendment, are flawed. They have at their heart the delusion of equality; the old school, socialist denial of meritocracy. And while New Labour were and are far from socialist, they still cherry pick and laminate the bits of Marxist ideology that play best to the crowd.
If the CBI’s suggestion is given credence, the fact that poorer students will be excluded from education by ever-increasing fees isn’t the whole problem. It’s more damaging to our country’s social mobility that rich, less able kids get to go to university instead. Tim Nice-But-Dim. Jocasta Cash-Flow Thicke. That’s the inevitable outcome of a higher education system driven solely by free market economics.
What we really need is a smaller, free-at-the-point-of access system that caters specifically for those who will benefit most from higher education; the brightest students, regardless of economic background or ability to pay.
This should be combined with more free, vocational training at Further Education level. Not degrees. Not academic qualifications. Modern apprenticeships and Higher NVQs. Qualifications that give people a realistic chance of getting a job – and help to preserve the prestige of having an academic degree.
Which, funnily enough, is pretty much what we had in the late 70s and 80s before the Thatcher government screwed everything up.
And, by the way, I’m not suggesting that higher education should entirely be denied to less scholastic candidates. The Open University is a superb institution – with a long established pay-as-you-learn model that’s ideal for self-improvers and educational hobbyists. It should be expanded and funded further, promoted aggressively and cherished. As for the Tim Nice-But-Dims of the world – I’m sure they’ll find a way to thrive. They always do.