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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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.