Britain: Top-Up Fees - New Labour Attacks Students

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?
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 general taxation?
    * 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 future.

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 education.

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 opposite).

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 days.

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 a decade.

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 efficiency.”

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 arguing for.

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.