hree years after graduating, and after barely
denting the debt I’d run up, I found myself asking if getting a
degree had been worth it. The drunken nights, casual sex,
interesting people, challenging academics and instilled confidence
cost thousands. The spare time those student days gave me
allowed me to meet people I would otherwise never have encountered
and to read books I never knew existed. More than that, they
gave me the space to learn something about myself.
at university left me with a contacts book that I would never
have otherwise had, with the added gain of free accommodation
on a floor of my choice in all parts of the country. Where
I’m from in the Rhondda it's not routine to rub shoulders
with the daughters of peers, read Rimbaud for fun and plan
a career in politics. And my earning potential is higher
than my contemporaries I left behind in South Wales. So,
yes, the benefits of a university place can be enormous,
and should be afforded to everyone who wants the experience.
The only question is how we pay for it.
The Government is faced with two problems. Firstly, it must
increase access to universities if it is to meet its target
of getting 50% of young people through university doors by
2010. This target, if slightly arbitrary, is noble and courageous.
For instance, I am the comprehensive-school educated son
of a single working-class mother from a poor area, exactly
the kind of person who should be actively encouraged into
higher education, according to the Government's rhetoric.
We assume things have changed for the better since the last
big university expansion of the '60s but they haven't really.
The proportion of manual workers' children getting into university
is the same as it was then. In fact, the National Union of
Students' figures show that in some of the lower socio-economic
groups' applications to universities have declined by as
much 9% since 1997. The number of university places has increased,
but they’ve been filled by the less-bright middle class
kids. Their parents know the benefits and stump up the cost,
whatever it takes. They hire their A-level tutors early.
We on the Left, who care about equality, need to create
an even playing field for those without such resource. If
our aim is truly to make a more meritocratic and egalitarian
society, everyone who is able and could benefit from a
university education, and especially those from backgrounds
who have traditionally not had the opportunity to enter higher
education, must be encouraged and offered a place at university.
Secondly, to meet this target and to redress the underinvestment
of the last ten years in higher education funding, it must
provide universities with more cash. Against all the odds
UK universities rank among the best in the world, with students
from all over the globe investing their money to attain a
British university degree. For years they have survived the
impact of falling investment and resources. Between 1989
and 1997 funding per student fell by over 35%, leading to
declining facilities and less investment in research and
teaching. Despite this, and it serves as a testament to those
who work within them, they have won 44 Nobel prizes in the
last fifty years. But as other countries pour more and more
money into university funding, we cannot lag behind. We’re
already playing catch-up and our universities’ deserved
reputation is at stake. If degrees are to continue to mean
something and provide a worthwhile use of young people’s
time, in addition to equipping them with the skills for an
ever closer-growing world economy, universities must be better
The Government aims to address these challenges.
Today, every university charges exactly the same £1125
upfront fee for all courses, whatever the type, length or
the level of demand. They do not have the option of not charging
a fee. The Government’s proposals would not only put
an end to this upfront fee, but could, if the university
chose to, end the fee all together. The Higher Education
Act will allow universities to charge from £0 to a
maximum of £3000 for their courses and put a stop to
the unfair demand that students or their parents pay upfront.
Instead, graduates will be asked to contribute through the
tax system once they earn £15,000 (rather than £10,000
which is the current level), based on the money they earn – not
on the level of fee they owe. This means that a graduate
earning £20,000 will pay just £8.65 per week
under our proposals, rather than double the amount (£17.30)
they do now. But more must be done to encourage those from
non-traditional backgrounds into university. That is why
under the Government’s proposals 30% of the poorest
full-time students will be guaranteed at least £3000
The Government will provide a fee grant of £1,200,
and a new higher education grant of up to £1,500 from
2006. Yes, Tony Blair’s government is reintroducing
the grant. Moreover, a disadvantaged student who gets the
maximum Government money will also get a minimum of £300
in bursary from their university if they charge £3000
for their course. And this Labour Government will put an
end the universities’ class discrimination by introducing
an access regulator.
The additional investment in universities from variable
fees (based on 75% of universities charging the full £3000
fee) will deliver £1 billion extra each year. Universities
already generate £800 million through the current fees.
So with these reforms, they will receive £1.8 billion
a year in fee income. A university charging a £3000
fee receives extra income that equates to a 30% increase
on the average funding per student.
The Government’s proposals are a fair way to increase
university funding and improve access. Everyone would like
free university places, but as Nye Bevan said, the religion
of socialism is the language of priorities; if graduates
earn more money than their non-graduate counterparts, it
is only fair they pay towards the upkeep of universities
when they can afford to contribute. And it is only right
that a Labour Government properly funds those universities
and offers a place to everyone who wants it.