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.