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10 December 2010

Degrees and working-class culture

Why the rise in tuition fees could be making a bad problem worse.

By David Allen Green

The case for a rise in tuition fees has a certain attraction to the tidy-minded. There is no doubt that higher education is expensive. There has to be some way of paying for it. And so it must be right that it should be those who benefit from a degree education that should pay for it themselves.

However, this neat and reductionist view is misconceived. First, there is a general point that the benefits of higher education are a public as well as a private good. But, from my personal perspective, there is another objection.

I happen to be from a working-class, council estate and comprehensive school background. As I get older and settle in to the middle-class worlds of law and the media, this becomes less important. Nonetheless, the council estates in south Birmingham where I grew up are still there, and the children and families from these estates still have the same expectations, and the same lack of expectations.

For many from this sort of background, it is a deliberate and exceptional decision even to stay on at school after 16, let alone go to university. This is, of course, the reverse of the world-view of many of those from middle-class backgrounds, where the deliberate and exceptional decision instead would be to leave education at any point before finishing a degree.

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There is nothing stopping a working-class person from staying on and getting a degree; there is nothing at all stopping them from accumulating debts and working part-time to support their studies. And there are indeed occasions when people from working-class backgrounds do such things. I know: I am one of them.

But this Thatcherite imperative of getting on one’s bike is not really a practical solution to the persistent problem of the low educational and vocational expectations of working-class families. And a tuition-fee scheme that rests on such a model of dynamic individualism will only make it less likely for children from such families to go on to university.

Only the politically naive believe that all political problems have policy solutions. Even when I went to university on a full local authority grant in the early 1990s, there was low social mobility. Perhaps there is no way the problem of social mobility and higher education can be addressed successfully. But at least it would be preferable not to make an extremely bad situation even worse.

David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2010.