If we're going to scrap tuition fees, university should be truly universal

Courses would not be flooded with idiots any more than public libraries are besieged by illiterates.

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As many readers will know, I am a defender of student fees. As a socialist, I support universal public services. “Free higher education” was not such a service because it excluded more than half the population. Universities were (and are) available not according to need or demand, as other public services are, but according to “ability to benefit”, defined by the possession of credentials that the children of the affluent are best placed to acquire. Compelling the excluded to pay, through their taxes, for privileged students to reproduce their cultural capital and access elite jobs was, to my mind, wrong.

But Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to abolish fees galvanised young voters. As a result, it is inconceivable that fees can survive in their present form, as Andrew Adonis, a New Labour adviser and minister largely responsible for introducing them, now acknowledges. Nor should they: the Tories, with their insistence that students should be “paying customers” seeking “value for money”, turned fees into a vehicle for the marketisation of universities.

A socialist alternative would be to introduce a progressive graduate tax tied solely to graduates’ incomes and not to the cost of their courses. It is too late for that, however. As an election slogan, “bring in a graduate tax” doesn’t match “bring back free university education”.

There is another socialist answer: turn higher education into a genuinely universal service and open universities, free at the point of use, to all who wish to attend. No, I would not allow anybody to enrol for medicine or civil engineering but, for most subjects, particularly in humanities and social studies, I do not see why proof of “ability to benefit” is required. People can decide for themselves whether studying history, English, botany or even media studies is of any value to them. Courses would not be flooded with idiots any more than public libraries are besieged by illiterates.

“University education for all” is surely an election-winning slogan.

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Theresa May, after spending the past year portraying Corbyn as the devil’s spawn, calls for Labour and other parties to contribute ideas and work for consensus. Only governments too weak to act want “debates”. The 1974-9 Labour government, with a narrow or non-existent majority, was particularly fond of them, launching, for example, a “great debate” on education, fronted by that supremely consensual politician Shirley Williams. Since voters frequently demand that politicians “work together” or “get round a table”, James Callaghan, PM from 1976-9, reckoned he could take the high ground against the opposition leader Margaret Thatcher, the least consensual politician imaginable. Alas, voters preferred the confrontational Thatcher to the emollient Callaghan in 1979.

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My late mother used a variant of the repulsive “N-word” when talking about her local newsagents who were of Asian extraction. I do not think she intended anything derogatory by it. Nor, I imagine, did Anne Marie Morris MP, who was suspended from the Tory whip after using an old metaphorical phrase about woodpiles during a discussion on Brexit. My mother was born in 1911 and left school at 14. She never stood for parliament or even the parish council. She was a school dinner lady. Morris was born in 1957 and studied at Oxford University. She was elected in 2010. She was global marketing director for Ernst & Young, a big accountancy firm. She is a perfect illustration of why, regardless of what Labour governments do, you should never vote Tory.

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Brrng! The postman delivers a package for which I must sign. I open it to find a new novel, Splash!, written by my old friend Stephen Glover, former Independent on Sunday editor, now a Daily Mail columnist. As the title suggests, it attempts a modern-day version of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, which drew on Waugh’s experience of covering Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia (as it then was) for the Mail. Written in Waugh’s style, Splash! imitates his practice of giving characters expressively comic names: there’s an editor called Doodle and a reporter called Blunt. Glover clearly enjoyed writing it and I enjoyed reading it. But anybody hoping for a wounding portrayal of the Mail and its present editor Paul Dacre will be disappointed. Though the cognoscenti will spot similarities – for example, Doodle, like Dacre, doesn’t use a computer at work – they are incidental and inoffensive. Glover’s novel is an apologia for tabloid journalism and a celebration of its role in exposing corruption among the elite.

The best fiction on the press comes from established writers who dabble in journalism only occasionally. Apart from Scoop, my favourites are Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning and Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day.

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In last week’s New Statesman, Xan Rice, celebrating New Zealand rugby union, quoted the American journalist Sam Walker who, in his new book The Captain Class, ranked the 16 greatest sports teams in history. Walker’s list features the New Zealand All Blacks twice but not the West Indies teams which, from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, dominated international cricket. They played 29 matches against England over 16 years without a single loss. Over a nine-year period, they won seven out of eight series against Australia, drawing the other. They won the first two World Cups and were beaten finalists in the third.

Walker notes the West Indies’ success but I suspect he didn’t understand how remarkable it was. It transformed a game in which the supremacy of England and Australia had long been unchallenged. The players, mostly descendants of African slaves, were nearly all from working-class backgrounds. Their success inspired socialists as well as anti-racists across the world.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions