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Laurie Penny: Beat the bastards, go to university

So, the bastards have won this round. Today half a million 18-year-olds will get their A-level results and join the scramble for university places that now cost three times what they did last year. Higher education is looking more and more like it was designed by a cutthroat consumer recasting of Thomas Gradgrind, Dickens's cold-blooded headmaster from Hard Times, who believed that profit was the only point of learning.

The Lib Dems won the votes and hearts of young people by promising to defend open access to university. Their betrayal of that trust was jaw-dropping – and spirit-crushing to a cohort of young people who had believed that if you voted for progressive change you might just get it.

It's a betrayal those young people are unlikely to forget as they grow up into a world where the best jobs and education are once more concentrated in the hands of those best able to afford the financial risks involved.

The privatisation of higher education is a scam. Here's how the scam works. Right now, whether you go to a local sixth-form college or the sort of school where boaters are part of the uniform, you will almost certainly be told that a graduate degree is a prerequisite for any sort of comfortable future. Not that we can any longer fool ourselves that a degree is a ticket to a job that pays well or, in fact, a job that pays at all – it's merely the passport stamp you need before you can get through the security gates of the middle class.

University applications are down 8.3 per cent this year, despite the recession, especially among people from poor backgrounds. The Gradgrinds may have won the battle, but they don't have to win the war.

Go to university, but go for the right reasons. Education isn't a gun held to your head: it's a weapon in your hands. Go not because you're afraid of not getting a job but go because you love to learn, because you're excited by ideas, because you believe that education is important for its own sake and when you get there, pay attention, read everything you can get your hands on, cram yourself with words and figures and ideas, because that's the one thing they can never take away from you.

The Gradgrinds will only truly win if you start believing that time and opportunity to read books is a luxury to be purchased, a product to be consumed, rather than a fundamental human right.