The past is a free tuition country

Observations on top-up fees (1)

Putting Charles Clarke and David Triesman (or Baron Triesman of Tottenham, as he has just been titled) in charge of getting university top-up fees through the Commons and the Lords respectively is a smart move by Tony Blair - indeed, the smartest thing he has done since the veteran left-winger Chris Mullin was told to work his passage back into government by being the public face of air-traffic control privatisation.

It is a simple but effective idea. If you want to push through something so reactionary that even the Tories shy away from it, make its most vigorous opponents the public face of the policy. Triesman, before he became Labour Party general secretary in 2001, made his name as a national official for the lecturers' union Natfhe, then as general secretary of the Association of University Teachers. Both opposed charging students any fees at all.

It is less than three years since Triesman, now a government whip in the Lords, was saying proudly: "University staff will be relieved to see the threat of top-up fees removed from the political horizon." The consensus against them covered "the political leadership of our main parties". He condemned "vice-chancellors who support the idea that students can afford to contribute more towards the cost of their education". Now he's on their side.

In 1996, he warned that any requirement to repay fees would deter working-class students from going to university. He suggested, instead, a 3 per cent tax on company profits to be earmarked for universities. The Labour Party publicly reassured him that there was no question of a Labour government asking students to pay fees. "Once you start doing that, where do you draw the line?" said a Labour Party spokesman. "The danger is that you would end up with students paying all their fees." Quite.

Things might have turned out very differently for Lord T. In 1988, Triesman almost left union work to head the then Polytechnics and Colleges Employers Forum. The organisation was looking for someone ruthless enough to carry through a fiercely anti-union policy, turning lecturers into casual, paid-by-the-hour employees. College bosses, like Blair today, thought they needed a poacher-turned-gamekeeper. They eventually gave the job to another union man, Roger Ward, who later said: "I beat the unions hands down." Perhaps Triesman thought wistfully that it could have been him.

Triesman's old friends in the unions say he has now crossed the boundary that separates a friend and an enemy. Paul Mackney, the general secretary of Natfhe, handed me a little poem - he's coy about who wrote it:

When former radicals are burning
Bridges to our students' learning
You might think we'd see some squirming
But anyone who's so determined
To mingle with the ranks of ermine
Must be classified as vermin.

If three years is a long time in politics, then 26 years is a lifetime, and perhaps we should not look too closely at what Charles Clarke said as president of the National Union of Students. But students in those days received grants and were not required to pay any tuition fees at all. The young Clarke would have reacted apoplectically if such a thing had been suggested. He believed that in a civilised society, all citizens should have equal access to free education.

What concerned Clarke in 1976 was that the grant was not enough to live on; and that it was unfair to have it means-tested according to the parents' income, because some parents did not pay up. All students should get enough to live on without having to get into debt, he insisted.

So having Clarke and Triesman front the policy is central to the strategy of persuading us that allowing the poshest universities to charge higher fees is redistributive - almost socialist, really. The truth is that it brings back the class divide of the 1930s, when a tiny percentage of Britain's population went into higher education, and most families knew university was not for the likes of them. The class divide for the 21st century has to be not whether you go to university but how prestigious a university you go to. Oxford for the toffs, Luton for the proles.