A missive from the r**l world

Two weeks ago, 15,000 students demonstrated in London against tuition fees and proposed 'top-up' fees. Andrew Oswald, a professor at Warwick University, writes to them to explain why they are misguided
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The Independent Online

Dear students,

Dear students,

Some of you want to prevent my university and others from charging a more sensible level of fees. You think, apparently, that £1,000 a year is a reasonable figure to pay for an education that will raise your lifetime income by half a million pounds.

I know many of you went to London recently to protest. I passed you on the Tube. Some of you carried banners saying simply "F**k Fees". I admire succinctness. But may I put a few questions?

Why is it fair to expect Britain's lorry-drivers and call-centre operators to stump up their taxes so that you can go to university? You were born cleverer than they were: you are lucky in your genes and so in your life will go on to make a far greater income and have nicer jobs than they ever can. Perhaps I am missing a vital step in the argument or am just old-fashioned, but what exactly gives you the right to take their money?

Why is it fair to expect a young woman from Cyprus to pay £10,000 a year to come to my university, while a young woman from Cardiff can come for £1,000? I was in my university cafeteria the other day at 8am (strangely, there were no students to be seen) and I had a very nice breakfast for about £1.50. I was hungry; I had been typing for a couple of hours. If someone proposed in your university that people from other countries should pay £15 for that breakfast while the Brits pay £1.50, would you think that reasonable? I would not. By the way, I couldn't help noticing that all the video-game machines outside that university café cost £1 a game.

If you believe in improving access to university for people from poor homes, why are you not supporting fees? Charging a sensible level of fees to the students from well-off backgrounds would allow the taxpayers' money to be diverted to where it is needed - a giant scholarship fund available to those whose parents do not have much money to send them to university. It is what some of us have long proposed (though, for some reason, that is not mentioned at the rallies against fees, where people such as me are portrayed as anti-student and anti-education). Spreading taxpayers' cash across students who do not need it, which is what we do at the moment, is illogical and unjust.

As our universities are going bankrupt, where do you propose that we find the money to be able to continue? Most people in Britain prefer to see their taxes spent on schools and hospitals and roads - and rightly so. Whatever may happen in the next year or two, there is no long-term future in hoping that the state will pick up the tab for higher education.

Did you know that departments such as mine now have trouble finding people with first-class honours degrees who are interested in being university lecturers? The reason is that the pay is a joke and the stress high. Yet we have to hire talented people to put in front of you in the lecture halls, because otherwise you complain.

In my view, Warwick is one of the best and most interesting universities in the world. So if we struggle to find applicants, what, I wonder, is going on behind the scenes at other British universities? If you paid up, I could make sure my young lecturers could afford to buy a decent flat. But you do not. So I can't. How is that fair, exactly?

I believe in education; went to a normal comprehensive school; would like to see more students from hard-up homes come to university; think that democracy is the best way for a country to be run; have even slept on a few administration-block carpets in my time; and will always stick up for students' right to protest about anything. But there is nothing justifiable about British higher education as it stands at the moment.

In this country, we take money from poor people and give it to rich people. The one-third of the country that goes to university is subsidised by the two-thirds that go into regular jobs. When I wrote essays on moral philosophy, that was viewed as ethically objectionable. Those who gain from something should not expect others - especially others who are less fortunate - to pay their bills. Fees alongside a big scholarship fund would be fair. The current system is not.

Yours faithfully,

Andrew Oswald

PS Welcome to the r**l world.

The writer has been professor of economics at the University of Warwick since 1996 and held positions previously at Oxford, LSE, Dartmouth and Princeton. He was a contributor to the Greenaway report on the funding of higher education