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17 September 2001

The great tuition fee scandal

Blair's policies keep the less affluent out of university; they also ensure that, even if they get t

By Francis Beckett

Tony Blair has ordered a rethink on university tuition fees. But it seems – as usual with new Labour – that he thinks the problem is more the presentation than the policy, and that a little tinkering will put it right. The truth is that tuition fees entrench Britain’s class system.

Britain is still largely governed by a hereditary ruling caste – the sons (and occasionally daughters) of those who can pay for fee-charging schools (which we perversely call public schools) and watch their children go from there to Oxford. Of the 11 prime ministers since 1939, Blair is the eighth to have graduated from Oxford. The other three – Churchill, Callaghan and Major – did not have degrees, so Oxford is the only university to have produced a prime minister for more than half a century.

He is also the sixth of those 11 prime ministers to have been at a fee-charging school. And Oxford accepts a higher proportion of its intake than any other university – just over half – from the 7 per cent of the population that attended fee-charging schools.

Look round boardrooms, or the top echelons of the professions. Everywhere you hear reminiscences of Christ Church and Magdalen, in languid public-school drawls. As Clement Attlee, public school and Oxford-educated, once put it: “Thought so. Cambridge man. All statistics. No sense of history.”

But at least Attlee dreamt, and worked, for equality of opportunity. His 1945 government set the tone for 34 years during which successive governments tried to ensure that education went to those who could use it, not those whose parents could pay for it. After 1979, government policy went into reverse: fast under Thatcher, even faster under Blair.

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One of the things new Labour thinkers do best is find ingenious arguments to prove that anything you want to do to help the poor will, in reality, help the rich. So when you say you want to get rid of tuition fees, they say archly: you mean you want the working class (whose children don’t go to university) to subsidise, through their taxes, middle-class children who do? Dear me. And what about students in further education colleges, who are far more likely to be working-class than those in universities? They don’t get grants. So why give grants to pampered middle-class university students?

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It’s the new Labour way of looking at the world. If a benefit is not reaching the poorest who need it most, we should withdraw it. The other solution – to ensure it does reach the people who need it most – never seems to occur to them.

Yet in this case, the second solution is not only right in principle; it’s implied by government policy. Forty years ago, about one in 20 of the population went to university. It is now one in three, and the government wants it to rise to one in two. In a mass higher education system, it will be more iniquitous than ever to exclude anyone because they are not well-off.

Yet that’s what is happening. It is true that you are exempt from fees if your parents’ income is below £20,000. But the combined effect of the withdrawal of maintenance grants and the imposition of tuition fees means that the rich, who have been able to pay £10,000 a year for public schools, have a huge advantage over the not-so-rich, whose children must struggle through university and amass a mountain of debt. A National Union of Students analysis shows that tuition fees have reduced applications from mature students (those aged over 25) by 15 per cent, and from black African and Caribbean men by 4 per cent.

Nearly half of all full-time students take part-time paid work during term time. For this reason, more than a third missed lectures last year, and one in five failed to submit coursework. Not only are we favouring the rich at university; we are also ensuring that the not-so-rich get inferior degrees.

The more prestigious the university, the richer its students. Last year, the 7 per cent who attended fee-charging schools got 48 per cent of the undergraduate places at Britain’s top five universities (including Oxford and Cambridge), 39 per cent of the places at the top 13 universities, and a quarter of the places at all universities. The poshest universities – the 19 universities in the self-selecting Russell Group – want to accelerate this trend by charging higher fees than the rest.

Tuition fees are a dramatic breach of the principle that education is free. If we’re to breach that principle, where’s the logic in starting at university? Why not start at 16, the statutory school-leaving age? I spoke to a very bright lady at the Institute for Public Policy Research, a new Labour think-tank. She was way ahead of me. The IPPR has already thought of that, and it thinks there’s an argument for it.

So you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see university tuition fees as the thin end of the wedge. What about secondary education? In many parts of the country, children are selected at the age of 11 to go to grammar schools, or specialist schools, or technology colleges, where more money is spent on them. Grammar schools select mostly middle-class children. Since middle-class parents benefit most from the money spent on secondary schools, shouldn’t secondary schools charge fees?

Tuition fees reinforce the hereditary power of Britain’s ruling caste. The government should scrap them and restore maintenance grants, even if it does mean a 1 per cent rise in the top rate of tax.