Tuition fees make students obsess about "value for money" from their education

As a second-time student who now pays the fees, Steven Baxter has noticed a change in his attitude to learning.

The year was 1998. I left university much as I’d joined it – with a sense of vague dread, albeit with a degree in my back pocket – and embarked upon a career in journalism. Having voted in New Labour in a euphoric haze of D:Ream, Britain Deserves Better and Robin Cook’s awkward dad-dancing, I felt a little guilty that my party of choice had surprisingly introduced tuition fees for all those students unlucky enough to be younger than me.

“Ah well,” I shrugged, “But I’ll never go back to university, so it won’t affect me.”

The lesson we learn from this is twofold: firstly, don’t trust politicians. Secondly, don’t trust yourself. Because, all these years later, I have ended up going back to university, and I find myself lumbered with a £9,000 bill for the privilege.

At this point I should politely prepare to hold back the bleating pedants and Liberal Democrats (now there’s a Venn diagram with a big bit in the middle). I am not lumbered with a £9,000 bill, they’ll say; and actually it’s all a lot fairer thanks to them, and the problem is I don’t really understand how much fairer it all is, and it’s only if I’m spectacularly lucky enough to be earning more than the average that I should pay back anything at all.

Yes yes, I hear all of that. It’s not that I don’t understand, because I do. And I repeat: I effectively have a £9,000 bill. If you want to portray it as some kind of hokey-cokey tuition fees which are only active when I reach that magical sum of wealth and opulence known as an ordinary wage, that’s fine. But I know the reality. Should I not have to pay it, lucky me, I’ll be badly off. Should I have to pay it, lucky me, I’ll still be quite badly off. It’s more likely than not that I’ll be paying it off.

But I am here to tell you this: since I am in a position to compare a university experience without tuition fees at all, and one with a likely £9,000 bill at the end of it, I’ve noticed several differences. Back then, of course, I was a long-haired teenager, bright-eyed and innocent, who was definitely going to be the best journalist ever; now I am a bald 37-year-old ex-hack who is definitely going to be the best primary school teacher ever. (I still have the same level of ambition, you’ll notice).

The memory plays tricks, but I can recall my undergraduate life being one in which I didn’t mind about the quality of the lectures, or even what they were about: I memorably picked the entirety of my second-year modules based on their being in the afternoon (and therefore more likely that I would actually turn up). Now, if there’s a session that isn’t up to much cop I can see the bundles of £5 notes being chucked into the furnace with every passing minute.

Back then, when you had a duff lecture, when the overhead projector didn’t work, when you didn’t get anything out of a two-hour session, you’d think no more of it and wander off to the SU bar. What did it matter? It wasn’t like I was paying anything. Now, it does matter because I am paying. And I think it totally changes the relationship between you and your course.

For better or worse, you start seeing lectures, seminars and so on as being "value for money" or not. You begin to treat your education like any other service: you’re in the position of a consumer, rather than a student, and you feel like asking for your money back on those occasions when things don’t quite go according to plan.

It’s not the way I want it to be, or the way I think it should be. I can’t help feeling for the lecturers who are experiencing this world of change, where students who once didn’t care too much about what happened when are now ever mindful of the price they’re paying for what the success – or otherwise – of their course. It’s easy to see why resentment can build on both sides, who can become a little more distanced than perhaps they used to be.

Back in that New Labour honeymoon, I never thought for a second that I would have gone back to university, let alone had to pay a fortune for it. But here I am and here it is: education reduced to a spreadsheet, to a series of products on a conveyor belt, with me, the student/consumer, desperately trying not to see it that way.

This could only be the beginning. How would voucher schools change parents’ relationship with education providers, and teachers? That remains to be seen. But what I do know is this: my generation didn’t fight hard enough to keep higher education free, and now we’re reaping what we have sown.

Photograph: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.