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Leader: University tuition fees and the common good

We do too little to help the poorest ascend the education escalator to a life of more opportunity.

When the Conservative-led coalition trebled university tuition fees to £9,000 a year from 2012, the intention was to create a market in higher education. David Willetts, then universities minister, predicted that institutions would only charge the maximum amount in “exceptional circumstances”. He was wrong: almost all universities (not only the elite Russell Group) have done so.

The result is that students in England now graduate with average debts of £50,800, at a time when real wages are stagnant and we have a housing crisis. At the 2017 general election, Labour’s pledge to end tuition fees was popular (even if the British Election Study has since suggested that there was no significant increase in youth turnout).

Theresa May was humbled in the election, losing the Tory parliamentary majority. Her government has now launched the fourth government review of university finance since 1997. In her speech on 19 February, the Prime Minister correctly observed that English students face “one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world”.

But Mrs May pre-emptively rejected Labour’s policy of abolition. This was a defensible choice. The ideal of a free system, which recognises higher education as a public good, is a noble one. But at £11bn a year, the price of abolishing fees is high (no policy in Labour’s 2017 manifesto would have cost more). And as the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, has noted, academic research shows that early-years investment makes the greatest difference to life chances. Once children enter secondary or higher education, the attainment gap between the richest and poorest is far more stubborn.

The abolition of fees would also benefit high-earning graduates the most, as well as forcing those who do not attend university to pay through their taxes for those who do. Since debts are written off after 30 years, poorer graduates currently do not pay back the full amount. The present system is, in effect, a graduate tax.

Though in her speech Mrs May promised no headline cut in fees, she hinted at the introduction of lower fees for humanities and social science degrees. Graduates in subjects such as medicine, dentistry, engineering and technology earn significantly more than their counterparts. Yet a genuine market in higher education would risk harming social mobility by deterring poorer students from applying for the most expensive courses. This is not desirable.

The government would be wiser to commit to restoring maintenance grants. A system that forces the poorest students to incur the highest debts (an average of £57,000) is indefensible. And though the total number of students from low-income backgrounds has continued to rise, the number studying part-time has fallen by 56 per cent since the trebling of fees (“I plead guilty,” Mr Willetts has said).

Britain’s universities are one of its greatest strengths. However, we do too little to help the poorest ascend the education escalator to a life of more opportunity. A troubled government must not tilt the odds yet further against them through unwanted and dogmatic marketisation. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.