Top-Up Fees: Educational Betrayal

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Education minister Charles Clarke was forced to begin a climbdown over top-up fees within days of the Queen's Speech that announced their introduction.

The level of dissent from backbenchers - 136 of whom had signed an alternative motion - and from the public has led him to hint that he might raise the income level at which students would have to start repaying their fees from £15,000 to £20,000. Desperate to win over backbenchers by playing around with the edges of the bill, New Labour hopes to avert the biggest rebellion it has yet seen.

But fiddling with the small print of the bill doesn't change the fundamental problem with it. One of the first things New Labour did when it came to power in 1997 was scrap the last vestiges of maintenance grants and introduce upfront tuition fees. The legacy of this policy is clear - a recent survey of 1,000 women aged between 18 and 28 found every single one to be in debt, up from 72 percent in 2001. Sixty percent of students currently have to work to meet the shortfall in funding. The new plan will mean debts of at least £21,000.

The government's White Paper, The Future of Higher Education, outlines plans which Clarke claims make the system fairer. Students from low income families will get £1,125 paid towards their fees, and will get a grant of £1,000. This means that should they choose to go to, say, Cambridge to study law they would still have to find £875 towards their fees. And while government figures show that accommodation and other living costs come to an average of nearly £7,000 outside London, the maximum that can be borrowed in student loans is less than £4,000. Charles Clarke points out that universities will have to make bursaries available to award to students as a condition of charging a higher fee. So Cambridge University claims one in three of its students could be awarded up to £4,000 per year - just like the good old days of Victorian Britain and the deserving poor.

The real issue is whether we want an education system in which everyone has the chance to study and learn, or one driven by the destructive values of the market. New Labour wants to make students into consumers - so rather than deciding where and what to study on the basis of what interests or excites you, you must do a cost-benefit analysis and work out the 'potential rate of return' of a course. This will mean students from working class families 'choosing' to study cheap courses near where they live so they can stay with their parents. The market provides no more real choice here than it has done on the railways.

The language of the market pervades every area of higher education in New Labour's vision. Clarke talks about needing to introduce fees in order to pay lecturers, whose salaries have risen by just 20 percent since 1980 compared to an average of 60 percent. But the White Paper puts this in terms of 'rewards' for 'excellence' and 'good performance' - paying a few lecturers more and leaving the rest behind. Only in order to encourage them to work harder, of course.

We need to fight for an education system based on the same principles on which the NHS was founded - free at the point of service for all, and funded through a progressive income tax system. The White Paper talks about 'competing on an international market', 'selling higher education' overseas, only funding the 'strongest' departments, etc. Any concept that we may all benefit from research done in one country is missing - there is no purpose to intellectual enquiry unless it makes a profit.

The pressure already exerted on the government has given us more time to build a campaign to defeat these proposals. Another education is possible.