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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle