Saturday, 28 May 2011

We must pledge to abolish University fees

We must as a Party pledge ourselves to abolish University fees.

I know we were the Party which introduced them, but we were wrong.

Looking at the thing historically, it all started after the Second World War, when bright working class youngsters in my generation were offered the chance to break out of poverty through education. They went to Grammar Schools (I was even more privileged, going to a Direct Grant School – essentially a private school, but one where the local authority paid the fees of the brightest poor children). Then they had their fees paid PLUS a grant to enable them to go to University.

I can’t pretend to be a ‘working class kid made good’ myself, but I went fee-free, with a grant, to Oxford University. I was desperately poor the entire time, but it changed my life – it was SUCH a privilege – and I am of the considered opinion that we must not – cannot – remove that opportunity from the upcoming generation under ANY circumstances, any longer.

The opportunity to as-good-an-education-as-one’s-brain-needs is a human right.

What happened to that process that took boys like Harold Wilson from Grammar School to Number 10?

Part of the problem, of course, was the idea of social equality. A scheme which allowed bright working class children to become ‘upwardly’ mobile ‘out of’ their class rather meant that there were many more people ‘left behind’. What about them! Shouldn’t we as a society be seeking to raise standards for ALL less-advantaged people, not just the clever ones?

And so we got Comprehensive Schools, and EMA, and Labour’s scheme to get 50% of ALL people to university. The principle was ‘opportunity for all’, and you can’t deny that it is a laudable aim.

The only problem was, barely had we implemented the principle but we decided that we couldn’t afford it!

So what did we do? Admit we had overstretched ourselves and move back somewhat towards the previous system? No! Nothing as sensible as that!

Instead, we came up with the idea of making everybody pay towards their education – an idea which the Tories have taken up with JOY!

Why? Because we did not just retreat from ‘opportunity for all’ to the selective opportunity which my generation faced. As soon as we started requiring everybody to pay, we returned to a system based on wealth. We – Labour – stopped young people from poor families (who struggle to save £5 a week to a Credit Union) daring to go to University. And as the fees have risen, so the threshold of ‘dare-not-risk-it’ has risen.

Let’s face it, at £9000 a year for three to six years, University threatens to become again the preserve of the wealthy, and we can look forward to sliding steadily back towards a pre-WWII society.

I can stomach an argument which says that we cannot afford as many undergraduates, so we cut down the number of places. Anybody who has met a flock of academics will agree that they are odd creatures who might not add as much to society as one might hope.

I might be able to stomach – with intense misgivings – a system which favoured some degree courses over others.

I certainly think we need to explore alternative provision – notably apprenticeships – for those for whom academia is perhaps less appropriate.

But if we are cutting back, we need to make sure that what is available, is available to merit, and not to money.

And I want to see the Labour Party – as the SNP have so popularly achieved in Scotland – sticking its neck out and promising to move towards abolishing university fees.

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