The controversial question of university fees in England is being widely talked about yet again following the election campaign in which the Labour Party had pledged to scrap tuition fees, and its leader Jeremy Corbyn had gone so far as to pledge to wipe out student debt if his party ever came to power.
Apart from the campaign pledges of both Labour and the Green Party and all the publicity these generated, this question is also highly topical now as the first generation to be burdened with annual fees of some £9000, and an expensive loan scheme to cover these, is now more than two years out of university.
To understand why university fees are even an issue in England one needs to understand what preceded the existing situation.
In 1962 Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government, through the Education Act of 1962, exempted full time students who were UK residents from tuition fees. Part-time students and overseas students were however not exempted. Full time UK students were not just exempted from fees, the Act also put in place a system whereby they could apply for maintenance grants so this meant their university education was almost free.
For more than four decades British students had the right to a free university education. This meant that students had access to higher education regardless of their social or economic background, and the only criterion was academic ability and admission to a UK university.
This massive investment in educating future generations and encouraging social mobility introduced by a Conservative government was, rather ironically, ended by a Labour government when in 1998 the Blair government repealed the 1962 Education Act and replaced it with the idea of ‘means tested tuition fees’.
Annual tuition of £1000 was introduced and the Student Loans Company was set up to do means testing and administer the system. The move was widely criticised as it signalled the end of the principle of free higher education. Labour’s Ken Livingstone accused Blair’s ministers of “whipping away a ladder of opportunity they themselves had once climbed”.
In 2004, Blair’s second government legislated to allow universities to set their own fees, capped at £3000 per year. Then in 2010 the Conservatives in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, tripled this figure and made loan repayment conditions much worse for students. In just over a decade a university degree went from costing nothing to at least twenty-seven thousand pounds.
Last week Lord Andrew Adonis, an advisor to Blair, who helped devise the current system of tuition fees and student finance published an article in which he argued that tuition fees should be scrapped, saying the system he helped create had become a “Frankenstein. Graduates on modest salaries have run into £50,000+ debts.”
Indeed, the system does seem to have become something of a monster: last year maintenance grants (for poorer students) were turned into maintenance loans, and from this academic year are subject to an interest rate of a whopping 6.1 per cent — which is more than on many commercial loans.
Also, very disturbing is the way that the UK tuition fees system has changed the relationship between students and their educational institutions. Paul Cocozza in a piece in The Guardian last week mused on how the tuition fees system had “shaped our understanding of education itself”. And a faculty member he spoke to said that essentially institutions now regarded paying students as ‘clients’, with the relationship being redefined as somewhat akin to that between client and device provider. The faculty member observed that “the marketisation of higher education is changing the whole culture of what it meant to be at university.”
And even more disturbing are observations suggesting that since the students have more to lose because of their financial investment, they tend to be more conformist and less intellectually adventurous.
The principle of free healthcare is similar to that of free higher education in that neither should be measured in terms of a financial transaction. Patients are not ‘clients’ just as students are not ‘clients’ either. From 1962 to 1998 British university students were students and higher learning was about thought and discovery rather than just investment and return. Saddling students with crippling debt and enormous stress is in no way a policy that is beneficial to the country.