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Moving beyond class

A disoriented Dan Elton finds the Tories have got it right on higher education.

When Damian Green MP (an incredibly well chosen name on behalf of his parents I feel, who must have realised that their son was Conservative front bench material) announced the new Conservative Party policy on higher education, I underwent a not too unpleasant, if disorientating sensation. I think it’s called agreement. Whatever it is, it’s very worrying.

Examining the proposal again, the party of class privilege and social rigidity was proposing an abolition of all tuition fees and scrapping of the 50% target of all young people into University. It all seemed so sensible. Even egalitarian. But there had to be catch somewhere.

Of course there was. This is the Conservative Party and they’re only paying lip service. They are more than happy to be pushed further and further to the right by New Labour and relish the day when life is ruled by a law of the jungle, within and between states. Furthermore even with the target abolished, higher education institutes still desperately need money, which the tax-slashing Tories could never provide.

I may have exaggerated the extent of my violent reaction to finding myself agreeing with ‘them’ against ‘our lot’ (I can’t quite say ‘us’). But it is not a massive exaggeration of the reaction of some.

By the time this magazine goes to print the Cambridge University Student Union (CUSU) may have voted to accept the 50% target. Cynics within the Student Union Council say that the outgoing President, Paul Lewis, is merely doing this in order to distance CUSU from the Tories.

Why though you may ask is the 50% target such a terrible thing? After all Kat Fletcher, champion of the Campaign for Education faction (the sensible trots) of the NUS, stood at the front of this year’s conference and said 85% of all 11 year olds want to go to university. Don’t they all have this right? And if Cambridge toff ends up paying more than London Met battler, who cares?

The answer is very simply this. If we widen access and yet introduce fees, social mobility in this country will start to seize up. I don’t quite know what allows the two Tonys, Benn and Blair to be members of the same party, but I’ll hazard a guess at this.

They both believe that a person’s life, should be determined by him or her, and not trapped by the society in which they live. Yet if highly differential tuition fees and the target come in simultaneously, that is precisely what happens.

There are three strong arguments for this. First of all, if numbers gaining places to university is expanded then wealthier students, who would not have had the ability to get to university a generation ago suddenly start filling up places at your former Poly of choice.

Second of all, students from a lower income background who would have gone to University a generation ago may be (and are) put off by fees.

Third of all, as young adults enter a job market where 50% of their peers went to University, to be without a degree becomes a much more severe handicap, as opposed to when a third went in the mid 1990s.

This process has already begun. Of the year group that took their GCSE’s in 1989, around 30% went to University. Of those from lower income backgrounds 13% went to University. Of the year group that took GCSE’s in 1999, around 40% went to University. Of those from lower income backgrounds 7% went on to University. These figures where published by The Centre for the Economics of Education, a think tank that is part of the governments own Department for Education and Skills.

Widening access only to those from higher income backgrounds threatens to reinforce class divisions when we started to believe as a society that we were beyond them.

Socialists have to move beyond class if they are to remain relevant. Yet this is what New Labour has failed to do with the target. There is a sense in the 50% target that someone with a degree is a priori more fulfilled than someone without. It is as if the route to our salvation as a society is that we all become middle-class.

Britain needs a highly skilled workforce. We owe it to the third world to readjust our economy let them have free reign over those parts of the global economy that need few skills. Industry is crying out for more plumbers and electricians. But the answer is not to widen access to university.

The answer to encourage a diversity in higher and further education: Modern apprenticeships, GNVQs, NVQs, things that can be invented by think tanks that we’ve never even thought of and yes, degrees. Then New Labour must then do what it does best: go on a branding campaign.

The Class mindset of this country insists that someone going to University is somehow a better person than someone who has had an apprenticeship. You can do a degree in hotel management. It could be offered as an apprenticeship. Is one worse than the other? If anything the practice of the apprenticeship is perhaps far more instructive than the theory of the degree.

There are two paths open to the government. The current one will lead to the decline of social mobility. But if we find a way of ensuring that everybody has greater qualifications without necessarily going to University, and we legitimise the non-university route, then we can build a prosperous and egalitarian society; a society where the highly skilled artisan can have as much pride if not more than the classically educated artist. The first step to such a society has a clear starting point: back the Tories’ education policy.