When I entered university in Aberystwyth, many years ago, the then Thatcher government had just ended housing benefit for students, were bringing in the poll tax, were slashing grants, and introducing student loans. We thought things could not get any worse. How very wrong we were.
This weekend’s announcement by the Labour party that they would have tuition fees of £6,000 completes the circle. Student grants are just a memory, the Labour government introduced tuition fees and then ‘top-up’ fees, the Conservative party want unlimited fees, the Liberal Democrats backed a policy of trebling fees, and now Labour are back saying that instead they should be doubled.
It seems that no-one is prepared to back the students. Even former NUS President, Aaron Porter, who initially impressed last year, has now abandoned his opposition to raising fees and is backing the new Labour party policy – perhaps putting his own ambitions before principles (ironically something Lib Dems are often accused of).
The years of higher education are a great experience. For many, it is the first time they have lived away from their parents, where you can meet new friends, enjoy studying topics of interest, and get a sense of independence. Students make mistakes in life, as do we all, but most former undergraduates look back on those years with very fond memories – especially if you went somewhere as nice as Aberystwyth.
Student life is not for everyone, of course, but it should be an option for those of any background who is prepared to work hard enough to get there and stay there.
The country, in return, gets a generation of graduates whose talents and skills have been proven and developed by study and academic qualifications – doctors, lawyers, businessmen, even politicians, all go on to play their part in the country’s future.
Fees, simply put, are a deterrent. £3,000 a year with a final debt of £9,000 to pay off does not sound too much – but remember you also have your living costs, hall fees, books, food, bills – and that is before anyone thinks of any socialising.
The priority should be simple – the best potential students should not be deterred from entering university whatever their background.
The short term aim should be to freeze tuition fees at no more than £3,000 a year.
The medium term aim should be to abolish tuition fees completely.
The long term aim should be to restore some sort of maintenance grant.
The question that we should be discussing is: how can we as a country find the money to invest in our future? Not to compete with each other, or play party politics, by discussing how much debt with which we can lumber the brightest amongst our future generation.