Today, in London and other parts of the UK, students are holding protestant against the proposed tripling of tuition fees in our universities; the cuts to government funding of universities that effectively mean that university teaching will only be paid for by student fees, and the cuts to bursaries to school children to encourage them to stay in education past the age of 16. First, as an academic, as somebody who spent more time than most as a student, and a member of staff at a UK university, I applaud and celebrate the willingness and enthusiasm of students to stand up for their rights, for the rights of a future generation of students, and for the principle of education for all.
Nick Clegg, as he tries desperately to scramble out of a cowardly volte-face, has said that before we protest, we should listen to his proposal, which “make[s] higher education open to everyone". Even if this is true- and I don’t think it is- it certainly won’t make Britain a fairer or more equal society. The removal of EMA- payments to young people from socio-economically deprived areas aged 16-18- to encourage them to stay in school are paid because historically these young people had to contribute to household incomes as soon as they were old enough to work. In a time of recession, with increasing rates of unemployment, the need for young people to start contributing to households will once more become a pressing issue (not to mention that for some young people this pressure has never went away). Without qualifications, these young people will be directed into low-paid, low-opportunity jobs, reifying existing class inequalities and destroying the potential for upward mobility. They certainly won’t be going to university- because they won’t have the qualifications to do so.
The proposal for tuition fees is that every student will pay fees of £9000pa, but that they will be given loans to do so- so the fact they don’t need cash up front should not act as a discouragement to people from any background. What’s more, it is argued that these fees will also be used to help provide bursaries for those from low-income backgrounds to ensure that these young people don’t get left behind. But, if he thinks that the potential of leaving university with around £50,000 in debt (by the time we add loans to live on) won’t put people off going to university, then he must be living on another planet. That is just a breath-taking amount of debt to be saddled with.
Even if he is right- and students from all backgrounds are willing to take the hit, the long-term social consequences are not being considered. As somebody with only a measly £13,000 in student debt, I only started earning enough to make repayments THIS YEAR- 7 years after my u/grad degree finished. I now get £100 a month deducted from my wage- the best part of which goes towards interest payments- with no signs of when that will stop (ok I could do the math, but it ain't any time soon). It is effectively a graduate tax that I will pay for the best part of my working-life, or until academia becomes significantly better-paid (ROFL). This will be the same for all future generations of students- only the amount of debt they will be trying to pay back will be significantly higher.
So, big deal you say. It’ll just be like paying income tax, or national insurance. Except, that income tax and national insurance are paid for by everyone. Student tax will only paid for by a few- and by that I don’t just mean students- but by a small proportion of students. Students with rich parents will have their fees paid by mum and dad, ensuring that they will not be saddled with debt for the rest of their lives. This means that they will have more money to buy bigger houses, fancier cars, and then of course, a bit more cash if they want to send their kids to private schools. They will also have extra money each month to save towards paying their children’s university fees- ensuring that they too will start life debt free. This will reinforce social boundaries, because better resourced children tend to do better in life- money breeds money.
It will also cause a retraction in the number and types of people going on to graduate degrees. Because without state funding, the fees for Masters and PhDs will have to go up too- and these aren’t covered by student loans- or really any type of loan. So, like now, people will have to find the money to pay for these degrees themselves- but whereas finding £3000 for a Masters (especially part-time) is achievable for many middle-class people, fees of £9000 or £10,000 will price most people out of the market. As a result, only the very richest will continue in education, ensuring that the top and best paid jobs will only go to the rich, and academia will once more be the playground of the social elite (with all the implications for equality and democracy in research models and findings).
What this decision does is entrench class divisions. It removes the social mobility inherent in the idea of education for all- in the claims of this government that they wish to promote ‘equality of opportunity’. Even if- and it’s a big if- paying for university will open up more places at universities (really, has anybody done the maths on this?), it will not make British society fairer or more equal.