Once again Tony Blair and the Labour Cabinet are prepared to take on
the wider labour movement and its own natural supporters in imposing
the unpopular policy of top-up university fees. Will they get away with
it this time?
At present students pay a flat rate fee of £1,125 up front to whichever
university they attend. Grants were finally abolished in 1998. Some
institutions offer bursaries, but this is means tested and uncertain.
Apart from that, you’re on your own when it comes to paying your way
for higher education.
The government is proposing to allow fees to be topped up by the
university you attend up to a maximum of £3,000 (for the time being –
the pressure is on that eventually they will go through the roof). It
is predicted that this will introduce a two-tier system in higher
education (HE), with ‘good’ universities charging more than ‘bad’ ones.
The government argues:
* Higher education is in crisis. This is true. A
figure of £10 billion needed to repair the damage is being bandied
about. We’ll look at why this is so a little later.
* We need more graduates. The government has a
target of half of all school leavers ending up with degrees. They argue
that this will be a benefit for the country as a whole – a ‘skills
based’ economy will grow faster. This is not so obvious. Surveys by the
World Bank have suggested that countries with better education systems
grow faster, but is there a causal connection? Does education cause
economic growth? If so, how? Anyway, if we’re all going to be better
off in an economy with more graduates, shouldn’t we all help out to get
us there? Shouldn’t the increase in HE provisions be paid for out of
* Since graduates benefit financially from getting a
degree, they should pay for the privilege. Now, first, not all degrees
mean you can earn more for the rest of your life. What do we do about
students with degrees in Anglo-Saxon or Media Studies who won’t earn
any more than non-graduates as a result of their studies? We suspect
the government wants such economically useless qualifications to
disappear. The government seems to have got their educational
philosophy from the capitalist philistine Gradgrind in Dickens’ novel
‘Hard Times’. “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls
nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life…Stick to Facts, sir!”
Compare this with Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, “Education
for its own sake is a bit dodgy.”And where does that leave a degree in
fine art – is it a useless frippery or integral to design in an economy
competing at the cutting edge of high value-added production?
# Graduates who go into many public sector jobs such as teaching may
never be highly paid. It is ironic that whilst many university vice
chancellors are enthusiastically backing the government’s arguments for
top up fees, they have been forced to acknowledge that salaries of
lecturers and other staff who are required to have degrees have fallen
behind year after year. And they are now proposing a new pay structure
for these staff that will actually mean further losses of pay in the
Unfortunately specific groups of graduates are already disadvantaged in
the employment market. Women who take career breaks to raise a family
are going to think twice about going to university. Statistically,
graduates from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to be
unemployed or underemployed after graduating.
Now there is one benefit of the proposed top-up fees. You only pay back
after you’ve graduated. But you have a duty to cough up as soon as
you’ve hit earnings of £15,000 a year. That is a poverty wage. It’s the
sort of money a school caretaker gets.
Has anyone thought about how these fees are going to be collected if the graduate decides to work abroad?
Given that we have fees for degrees anyway, the only effect of top-up
fees will be to act as a disincentive for working class students to
apply for ‘good’ (elite) institutions. We’ll deal later with the
argument that there are good universities and bad ones. What is true is
that entrance to elite institutions is dominated by middle and upper
class students. Mixing together in these places helps them network and
bond together like a masonic order to get on better in life after
The attitude of past generations of Labour politicians has been that
they want to help working class students storm these bastions of
privilege. Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock was proud of the fact that
he was the first Kinnock to go to university. Though Tony Blair comes
from a massively privileged background, many in the present government
come from a similar generation as Kinnock. They made it – now it seems
they are determined to pull up the drawbridge against later intakes!
People like Neil Kinnock could go to university because, first, access
to higher education was expanded massively with public funds. Secondly
government funds were made available on a means tested basis for
grants. Working class students could just about make do thirty years
ago on the full grant. But life wasn’t a bowl of cherries. Full time
students gave up earning for three years to live on a grant while their
mates were coining it in. Also fees were paid for out of the public
purse. Yet it was Labour that finally abolished grants in favour of
student loans after the Dearing Report in 1998 (Dearing recommended the
The government is proposing to reintroduce grants – but at £1,000, a
level so low it cannot possibly attract working class students into HE.
What is £1,000 supposed to pay for? University figures for the cost of
living in London for a student are many times greater than this these
They are also suggesting means testing on the new higher fees. They say one third of the poorest students won’t have to pay.
With the flat rate fees and loans, students already leave university up
to their ears in debt. Top-up fees will act as a further disincentive
to go for a degree. In particular the elite institutions will be ruled
out for working class people.
The hard educational evidence also shows that working class students do
worse on courses they do go in for. This is not because they’re thick,
as the government seems to think, but because they have to put in more
hours getting jobs to make ends meet, and so spend less time studying.
Also they’re more likely to drop out. The additional financial
pressures on working class students means universities like London
Metropolitan and East London with the highest intake from poor
backgrounds also have the biggest dropout rates.
What conceivable justification does Tony Blair have for the blatantly
elitist policy of top-up fees? Educationalists argue that inequalities
are already set up by the time children are five years old. Throughout
the school years the gap between the classes becomes an unbridgeable
gulf in educational attainment. So university is really a middle class
thing. They then argue demagogically, ‘why should working class people
pay taxes for middle class people to widen the difference still further
by going to university? Why should we pay for them to acquire yet more
privileges?’ As Nick Barr, a Blair guru on education, argues – it’s
like subsidising champagne.
Now this argument just gives up on the education system as a potential
liberating force for working people. The traditional labour movement
case was for higher education to be open for all. Marxists have
consistently argued that educational inequalities are a reflection of
the deeper inequalities in society. Education, on its own, cannot be
used as a form of social engineering to eliminate class differences.
The working class cannot be fully emancipated without a social
revolution. But that doesn’t mean we just give up on education. After
all, working class youth spend years of their lives in the system. We
want value for money for them, and for us! If New Labour is arguing
that inequalities are set by the age of five, where is the massive
‘front loaded’ programme of pre-school education aimed at eliminating
these inequalities at root?
What is education for? Traditional social democrats have argued for
using education policies to reduce inequalities. They often put this
forward as an alternative to social ownership of the means of
production. The critics of progressive education policies respond that
this means levelling down by getting rid of private schools, grammar
schools and other ‘centres of excellence’. This is, of course, a
profoundly elitist argument which sentences working class kids to the
status of ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ from birth.
The Thatcherite argument, continued by Blair in the case for top-up
fees, is that people go into education to get the best for themselves.
Therefore they should pay. In fact, if it is not paid for by the state,
education is generally paid for by the parents. The middle class are
prepared to make considerable personal sacrifices to make sure their
little Tarquins do well out of the education lottery, whether they
merit it or not.
Marxists believe that education ought to be about setting free young
people’s potentials. This is an egalitarian project in the profoundest
sense – equality doesn’t mean making everyone the same. But liberating
talents hidden in working class children is a necessary and important
part of working class emancipation.
The government’s proposals are supposed to relieve the financial crisis
of the universities. This crisis is part of the malign heritage of the
Tories. During the 1990s there was a massive increase in HE provision.
Quite often this was literally a way of sweeping under the carpet their
dreadful legacy of mass unemployment. Tuck ‘em away in schools! Keep
‘em off the dole queue figures! This expansion of higher education was
achieved at no expense to the Treasury. Costs per student in HE
collapsed from £7,500 per head in 1989 to £4,800 now. Student/staff
ratios ballooned, lecture theatres were packed to overcapacity and
students were told to forget about library resources and do all their
research on the Internet.
Labour would have done well to spend their eighteen years in opposition
warning that the Tory rundown in public provision in all areas was a
fools’ paradise. It would all have to be paid for eventually. They
didn’t. Now the bill has arrived.
Top-up fees were specifically rejected in Labour’s 2001 election
manifesto. Now they say they are so urgent they have to be legislated
for immediately. This will increase the suspicion and contempt members
of the public have for politicians. Blair’s proposals for top-up fees
were triggered by meetings with University vice chancellors, who
explained the pickle they were in. He also acted under the influence of
his guru Roy Jenkins, who had left the Labour Party in 1981 to found
the Social Democratic Party and keep the Tories in power for more than
But get this. Top-up fees won’t actually raise much money for HE! The
Institute of Fiscal Studies reckons it will inject just £500 million.
(Remember – the sector needs £10 billion) And because students don’t
have to start paying till they leave to go to work, no money will be
available to deal with the present crisis. New Labour is trying to sell
the policy of top-up fees to its back bench critics with concessions on
working class access to university. They propose an Office of Fair
Access (already labeled OffToff, though not yet set up) to pressure the
elite institutions to take more working class students.
Labour MP Peter Bradley, a critic of the top-up scheme, has tried to
work out what effect it’ll have on different universities. Oxford only
has 10% of students from lower income background. The other 90% (or
rather their parents) will have no problem paying higher fees. So
Oxford would be better off from the introduction of top-up fees. Even
if Labour insists they double their intake of poor students as part of
the deal, they’ll still be coining it in from higher fees. The
University of Wolverhampton, on the other hand already takes in 75% of
its students from poor backgrounds. They won’t be able to put up fees
like Oxford. And three quarters of their students will need to be
subsidised through bursaries. So rich institutions will get richer and
poor ones poorer. Moreover the government proposes to switch research
funding towards the success stories
What this is really all about is creating a market – or rather a
fantasy market – in higher education. Some university administrators
are already referring to this as ‘privatisation’. Just like foundation
hospitals the ‘first class’ universities will have the deep pockets to
outbid the others for staff such as star academics and researchers and
deepen the divide between the institutions.
This is what Blair’s ‘reforms’ are really all about. He wants to
introduce the ‘discipline of the market’ into higher education. Since
it apparently costs about £4,000 a year to teach a course, universities
that run courses where the students can’t earn enough to pay back
‘realistic fees’ will have to close them. These are contemptuously
called ‘noddy courses’ by educationalists. All higher education will be
slewed towards a money-making career. HE institutions will have to
orient their education towards the capitalist marketplace. The more
money they make, the more they can keep. Nick Barr opposes central
allocation of funds, which is fairer, but which he compares to
Stalinist planning, “Central planning continues, muting incentives to
Charging top-up fees is alleged to make universities ‘efficient’. How?
Will Oxford and Cambridge start to feel the pinch and increase their
productivity – whatever that means in this connection? The rich will
pay whatever it takes to get their offspring to Oxbridge, knowing it
guarantees them a life of privilege. In their case being bombarded with
higher fees just make for an even more cosseted, sheltered existence
beneath their dreaming spires.
Nick Barr seethes with hatred at the ‘communism of the fixed rate
principle’. Actually an educational expert who can’t tell the
difference between Stalin’s Russia and the Oxford Evelyn Waugh
described in ‘Brideshead revisited’ should fill all who wish Labour
well on education with despair.
New Labour is taking us to somewhere we’ve been to before. We’re going
forward to the past! In the bad old days only the rich went to
university (apart from a handful of scholarship pupils). The rest of us
went straight from school to work. The lucky ones got an apprenticeship
– providing a practical technical skill. British capitalism has always
been reluctant to pay for its most valuable asset – a trained and
educated working class. As capitalist production advanced, the bosses
screamed for the state to fill the gap with theoretical and practical
training for a layer of skilled workers to grapple with constantly
changing technology at work. Thus began the polytechnics. HE was
officially recognised as a two-tier system – university for the upper
and middle classes, poly for bright working class youth
In the 1990s the Tories, who were using HE policy to massage the
unemployment figures, declared the polys to be new universities. All
these institutions could issue their own degrees. Now they are to be
relegated from the premier league once again through the remorseless
grinding of market forces.
How should education be funded so as to make it available to all? If it
really is the case that universities make rich people richer, then they
should pay. They can certainly afford it. They should pay as rich
people, not as graduates. Raising the top rate of income tax on those
earning more than £100,000 a year to 50% (we are talking about just 1%
of the workforce) would generate revenues of more than £4.5 billion a
year. Problem sorted! That is what the National Union of Students is
Socialist Appeal puts forward the argument for socialism. It has to be
said that in theory we could have a fairer higher education system with
access for working class children without social revolution. It should
be in capitalism’s interests to tap into and exploit everyone’s
abilities. So a fairer system would also be more efficient.
Actually capitalism stifles the initiative of the vast majority, the
working class. And all the pressure on the state is to stitch up
universities as a middle class monopoly privilege. Only 15% of poor
children go to university compared with 81% who have professional
parents. There has been a massive expansion of HE since the Robbins
Report of 1963 recognised that was what modern capitalism needed.
Though the number of working class kids going into higher education has
gone up, the proportion hasn’t changed in forty years. The pressures
generated by a class divided society to replicate itself through the
education system are intense. So let’s fight top-up fees and argue the
educational case for socialism.