Joan Smith: Our betrayed students should shout more loudly still

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The Independent Online

Student demonstrations? Let's have more of them. A long time ago, I chased Margaret Thatcher across a university campus during a high-spirited protest, and I didn't have anything like as much to complain about as the students who marched through London last week. I wasn't facing a trebling of tuition fees, decades of debt and the creation of a two-tier higher education system; looking back, it was a halcyon moment when a girl from a low-income family could go to university, get a degree and leave unencumbered by debt.

I thought I was a pioneer, blazing a trail for the working-class kids who would come after me, but now I see teenagers from ordinary families wondering how they can possibly afford a university education. People in their twenties are turning on my generation, accusing the baby-boomers of taking too much and leaving them to pay, when the blame lies at the door of ideologues who are bent on introducing free-market economics into higher education. It started under a Labour government and the coalition's broad acceptance of Lord Browne's review accelerates the process; these are people who don't understand what education is for or how it benefits the country as a whole. They're also in thrall to the illusion of "choice" for students who shop around for courses.

When universities found themselves able to charge up to £3,000 a year in 2006, the result was supposed to be a market in tuition fees; in reality, most went for the maximum. This time, education ministers say the £9,000-a-year limit should apply only in "exceptional circumstances", but I'm sure that creative and overpaid vice-chancellors will be able to come up with quite a few of those. The elite Russell group of universities is gazing longingly across the Atlantic, where top American universities charge eye-watering fees.

At one level, that's what all this is about: the Americanisation of higher education. (Scotland, of course, is a different matter.) We are fast moving away from the European social democratic model, where education is regarded as a social good, towards the Ivy League system where the very best education is available only to a wealthy few. The academic Joseph A Soares, in his book The Power of Privilege: Yale and America's Elite Colleges, concluded that "acceptance in prestigious colleges still remains beyond the reach of most students except those from high-income families". Harvard fees for 2010-11 are $38,416, Princeton's, $36,640 (£22,690) and Yale's $38,300. Dartmouth College charges $40,437.

Sweden, Finland and Norway charge no tuition fees for domestic and EU students. French students pay fees, but at ¤174 (£148) a year for undergraduates and ¤237 for post-graduates, they're firmly in the European camp. In Germany, the country's 16 federal states have been able to set tuition fees since 2005 but they are mostly around ¤500; two states have stopped charging altogether. But in the UK, we're already seeing a generation of recent graduates who can't afford to buy a home, saddled with a debt of £20,000 or more. This will get much worse as fees rise. Graduates earning £27,000 a year may take 29 years to pay off their student loans.

A handful of idiots smashing windows at Millbank tower for the TV cameras grabbed the headlines last week, but they didn't invalidate the students' cause. This is above all a class issue, and I might have to join the next demonstration myself.