Why I think students fees are a good thing…

September 5, 2011 4:38 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

In an ideal world (one in which The X Factor is but a terrible dream, foisted upon us by a vengeful Satan), students wouldn’t have to pay tuition fees.

In a little socialist paradise, based somewhere off the M4 with an ironic expensive gift shop, Polly Toynbee would feed grapes into the grateful mouths of the nation’s young, while Tony Benn lectures gatherings of sandal-wearing, open-minded people on how ‘Clause 4’ wasn’t a sequel to a bad Christmas movie. The ghost of George Orwell would shuffle past and frighten the youngsters by saying “Told you so” whenever the community heard about the government’s new anti-terrorism legislation.

The village elders would exalt their people to never give up the fight, even when a child let loose on the internet discovers that there are more household names on Wikipedia under the category “Notable Big Brother contestants” than “Notable democratic socialists” (seriously, who is Olof Palme?).

This is my long-winded explanation for why I believe tuition fees are a good thing. I could have achieved much the same effect if I stood on top of the bar at my student union hang-out and shouted “I am a massive raging Tory!” but it is rarely a bad thing to dream of a socialist utopia, even if it does involve Polly Toynbee.

Obviously, I am not a Tory. Yet according to many on the left, as a supporter of tuition fees I might as well join the Bullingdon Club, appear on University Challenge and wear numerous shades of beige for the rest of my boring life. It’s not all posturing and grandstanding however, like that moment when you’re seventeen and decide to become vegetarian for all of a week before being lured back to the dark side by a Chicken McNugget.

More poor kids than ever are going to University, which I think is indisputably a good thing. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) reported in 2009 that “The proportion of young people living in the most disadvantaged areas who enter higher education has increased by around 30 per cent over the past five years, and by 50 per cent over the past 15 years”. There has of course been an increase in the volume of people attending University anyway, but the increase is smaller than that among children in disadvantages areas. “30%” of children attended University in the mid-1990s, upped to “36%” by the end of the noughties. An increase of 20% in general against 50% amongst disadvantaged kids.

This clearly demonstrates that despite tuition fees being introduced by New Labour (and despite their rise to over £3,000 by 2010) poor kids have not been put off attending Higher Education. As I alluded to before, ideally there would be no tuition fees and money would grow on trees and all the kids who smashed up JD Sports in the riots for Saturday night kicks would be reading Liviticus. But let’s be realistic. It is a proven fact; tuition fees have not deterred people of any economic background from spending three years spewing up in a rancid downtown nightclub while feeling guilty about the waist-hight stack of reading left at home.

I am from a low-income background. Quite often it has been a no-income background. Perversely, I am better off under the tuition fee regime than I would have been when Uni was free. A government of whatever stripe can hardly increase tuition fees without increasing the support for kids who may otherwise struggle under the burden of paying their way for the first time. It is admittedly a twisted way of doing things. But in the days of free post-18 years of age education, the bursaries and grants were paltry.

From next year, anyone whose parents earn less than £25,000 will recieve a full grant of £3,250 (or 1,000 bottles of premium cider in student money). Between £25k and £42k, a grant will also be given on a sliding scale. To highlight this generosity, the median income of Britons is approximately £21k. It boils down to one simple matter: is it better to have free education but limited help for students to pay for books, travel, rent and going out? Or charge them a wodge of cash – none of it up front – for the privelige so the taxpayer isn’t completely burdened with the responsibility of paying for the tuition of hundreds of thousands of adults? At least the back-up is there for worse off kids who can’t rely on the bank of Mum and Dad.

This is forgetting other pots of gold. At the institution I attend, Sussex, anyone gaining the full grant gets a further £1,000 per year. Various grants and bursaries are available to gifted children regardless of background and there are further loans available if need be. Rent reductions are also being introduced by Sussex: this is a more tangible differences to a student’s standard of living than supposedly “free” education, when paying for food and rent is a worry. University is more than just education and anyone who says otherwise is naive. It’s about making friends, going out, living alone for the first time and shock, horror, studying as well. As a package deal it does not come cheap.

Student finance is better than any bank. Interest is only added on your loan at the rate of inflation if you earn below £21k a year after studying. After thirty years the loan is written off. All of these advantages are significant but there is one enormous crime which all party leaders and political figures have been guilty of and that’s not shouting the advantages from the rooftops.

I abhor the idea of money in education. When I see people like Sir Toby Young yapping away about private schools and their “character-building” ethos, it makes me want to vomit spectacularly over a posh kid’s face. The coalition government’s new “free schools” seem to be another exercise in saying the opposite of what you mean. Ignorance is strength. War is peace. “Free” is subsidised by the state and profitable for wealthy businessmen.

But university is different to normal education. It is a choice. When the government enforces new legislation to keep children in education or training until eighteen, it will be the first time a child gets to choose whether they want to learn or not. Therefore I am not entirely comfortable with the idea of having those teenageers who choose to work in low-paid manual work subsidising an education through tax for the people who will probably become their middle-management bosses in a decade’s time.

The new tuition fee regime needs spelling out explicitly for prospective students. Becase believe it or not, the deal is fair. The ones that will suffer are the rich. And according to Toby Young, their private education will have given them enough “character” to muddle through anyway.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not represent the views of the London Progressive Journal.


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This post was written by Chris Mason-Felsing

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