Today, Lord Browne publishes his controversial report into the future funding of our universities. And it looks like students are going to have to pay much more to fund their university education. Before we look at what he says, let’s set the debate into some historical context.
Remember when Neil Kinnock said he was the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to go to university? Well, I know what he meant because I was the first in my family to go too. But I shouldn’t have been. My mother, who went to school in the 1940s should have gone, and had she grown up nowadays she would have. She had the academic ability, but in those days universities really were the preserve of the very few. But in the 1960s a whole host of new universities were created and they opened up higher education to a whole new generation. For the first time, it wasn’t just the academically brilliant or the very rich who got places at university, it was people from normal backgrounds too.
But you still had to be part of an elite even if the wealth of your family ceased to matter. I went to the University of East Anglia, or university of easy access as it became known. I started my degree in 1980. I was on a full student grant. Tuition fees and student loans were only a gleam in Sir Keith Joseph’s eye in those days. So thirty years ago most students had a free university education, funded entirely by the taxpayer. Sounds good doesn’t it? Well, to those of us who had it, it was, but only 14% of 18 year olds went to university.
Since then polytechnics have turned themselves into full universities, student loans were introduced, and then Tony Blair introduced tuition fees too. Student loans I could just about understand – why should the taxpayer fund student drinking binges? But I always felt that tuition fees were one step too far – that they would put off students from poorer backgrounds from going to university and that higher education would become the preserve of the rich. Instead, though, applications went through the roof and we’ve now got to a point where 43% of 18 year olds go to university. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Except that it isn’t quite that simple.
Labour set an arbitrary target of 50% of 18 year olds should go to university. Why not 60, or even 70? The trouble is that those who don’t get to university are made to feel as if they’ve failed in life. They haven’t at all – it’s just that they may not be academically gifted. In other countries they would look to vocational training as an alternative, But that’s all but disappeared in this country.
And even worse than that, at some universities there is a 25% drop out rate in the first year. Again, needlessly, many 18 year olds feel a failure when it’s not their fault. They should never have been put in that position in the first place.
So, to return to the Brown Review. It has rejected a graduate tax but instead proposes that universities should be able to charge higher rates of tuition fees and that well off students should pay a higher rate of interest on their fees and loans than those who end up with poorer paid jobs.
It is amusing to see Labour politicians rail against this, when most of them voted for the introduction of tuition fees, even though it was not in their manifesto. I also can't help but find the twitchings of the LibDems on this subject somewhat hilarious to observe.
But the fact is that if we wish to keep higher education open to the masses, universities need to increase their income. With an ever increasing number of students wanting university places, what alternative is there? I do fear there will be a growing disparity between the top universities and the others, but in some ways it was ever thus. The difference is that it won't be your social class which stops you going to Oxbridge, it will be the size of your (or your parents' wallet).
We have made many mistakes in our higher education policy. Turning polytechnics into universities was one. Introducing a 50% target rate was another. It was always inevitable that tuition fees would have to rise and when Labour introduced the legislation they knew it too, but would never admit it.
I just hope that it won't put off academically gifted people from poorer backgrounds from going to good universities. But I fear it may.
UPDATE: John Rentoul complains that I don't say what I would do instead. He's right. I don't. Why should I? I was against them in the first place as I felt that had they been around in 1980 they would have deterred me from going to university. They clearly haven't deterred a lot of other people though, as we can see from the ever increasing number of people applying for places. So I may have reservations about these current proposals, but I am not sure I see any alternative.