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Monday, 22 May 2017

Tuition Fees

Due largely to the naivete and inflexibility of Mrs May's thinking, combined with the hegemony that her clique of advisers has achieved, the Conservatives are losing ground to Labour significantly as the election campaign continues. Two obvious areas where the Tory vote could crumble quickly are a consequence of the threat to the incomes and assets of older people - most of whom have worked all their lives, in the belief that they had a social contract with the state [pay national insurance and receive benefits in health care and pensions] - and the opportunity offered to students, their parents and their younger siblings to be emancipated from tuition fees.

Within my personal memory are the facts that in 1960 only about 5% of eighteen-year-olds could go to university: they paid no fees, and were eligible for means-tested maintenance grants that were sufficient to maintain a young person in modest comfort during termtime. There were plenty of casual jobs to be taken up in the vacations, also; but the majority of students were from the middle class who were happy to support their children to the extent of topping-up their maintenance grants and keeping them in the vacation.

In the late nineteen fifties Harold MacMillan's Conservative government became concerned as to whether the UK was preparing enough graduates in science and engineering, and eventually they appointed a Committee of the 'great and good', chaired by Lionel Robbins the dominant Economist at the London School of Economics. The government welcomed their report, which recommended a massive expansion of the university system to cover both the expansion of the existing universities [and colleges of advanced technology] and the foundation of several new universities. The government accepted the report: hence we have the universities of Warwick, Sussex, Lancaster, York etc. There was also a parallel expansion of city technical colleges into polytechnics, which later merged with local teacher-training colleges to become nascent universities [to be 'legitimated' as universities in the early 1990s].

The system grew; but it grew awry. Far from producing an abundant supply of scientists and engineers, the universities struggled to fill their spanking new laboratories with adequately prepared students. Even when they offered introductory programmes for students whose maths and physics were shaky, the science faculties were under-employed with teaching: so the staff spent more time and resources on research, which benefited the economy in general and attracted overseas students to take up some of the vacant places. For half a century the British schools system has failed to inspire young people in sufficient numbers to take the preparatory subjects they would need to study science or engineering; while the universities have prepared tens of thousands of engineering graduates from Asia. Asiatic countries have continued to send their students to the UK as fees for 'international students' have increased massively; maintaining some [but not all] of the engineering facilities envisaged by the Robbins committee.

Higher education was made a 'right' for all qualified eighteen-year-olds and 'mature students'; but maintenance grants were reduced and fees were imposed as the numbers rose to more than 40% of the age cohort and most of them opted to take non-scientific subjects. University became a growing-up experience for the millions: as Oxbridge had been for hundreds of the most privileged youths before 1850. Tuition fees have risen to £9,000 a year, loaned to the individual on apparently-manageable terms. Labour has promised to abolish the fees, that have never been imposed in Scotland.

The question of whether university is worthwhile for the nation would loom large, if Labour won the election and implemented its promise to end the fees. Billions of state funds would be spent on young people to study 'useless subjects' for a few hours a week, as the economy continued to go down the pan.

More on this issue tomorrow...

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