Joan Smith: Why stop at students? Let's make children pay for school

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The Independent Online

It's an absolute scandal. Every day, hundreds of thousands of people are turning up at buildings provided by the state for free lessons in all sorts of subjects. They don't pay a penny, even though many of them are 12 or 13 years old and perfectly capable of taking out loans. They're a burden on the taxpayer, and I hope the Government will take action against these shameless freeloaders as soon as possible.

Loans for schoolkids? Why not? The universities minister, David Willetts, has their older brothers and sisters in his sights. He last week described student degree courses as a "burden on the taxpayer" that had to be tackled. He told students to think about the debts they incur at college (currently averaging £23,500) as a form of higher income tax.

Governments hate the cost of higher education. Before the general election, Lord Mandelson announced big cuts in the higher education budget and Willetts's remarks have been seen as a signal that the Government will back Lord Browne, the former head of BP carrying out a review of student finance, if he recommends removing the £3,225-a-year cap on tuition fees. Some reports suggest that students may be asked to pay £7,000 a year, rising to £14,000 for more expensive courses such as sciences. Supporters of this option cite the huge tuition fees charged by top American universities in exchange for a world-beating education – but only if you can afford it.

The Government is aggressively rebranding higher education as an individual benefit – which individuals should pay for – rather than a social good.

I don't know how this plays with Lib Dem members of the coalition, who oppose tuition fees, but Tory ministers are going even further than the Labour Party, which took the controversial decision to introduce them. The idea that having a population educated to the highest possible level is good for everybody went out of the window long ago.

I hate this cheapskate, utilitarian attitude. The budget of the Government's university funding body, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is £7.4bn and it's astonishingly good value, especially when compared to the £20.3bn it cost to nationalise Northern Rock.

There is a scandal here: as graduate couples emerge with almost £50,000 in debts, pay and pension packages for university administrators have soared.

Vice-chancellors received an average increase of 8.5 per cent last year, ahead of most FTSE 100 chief executives. Already among the highest-paid public sector workers, they enjoyed pay and pension packages averaging £308,000.

Salaries above £100,000 are paid to almost 4,000 other academic administrators, consultants and scientists in British universities, while Oxford University has the highest-paid university employee in the country: not an academic but its fund manager, who earns £580,000 a year.

It's the same old story; people who earn huge salaries in the public sector need to be petted and coaxed to do their jobs, while everyone else has to endure cuts, pay freezes and higher fees for public services.

A Conservative minister, Bob Neill, admitted as much in the House of Commons last week, causing uproar with his candid acknowledgement that "those in greatest need ultimately bear the burden of paying off the debt". That might just be you, if you happen to be from a family of modest means and aspire to a college education.