Laurie Penny: To hell with the Gradgrinds – go to university

It matters that we live in a country that no longer believes in training minds from all backgrounds


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. Despite Government predictions to the contrary, nearly every Higher Education institution in the nation is now charging the maximum fee of £9,000 a year, which is what tends to happen when you eviscerate the public university budget and expect institutions to hustle the cash themselves. British Higher Education is looking more and more like it was designed by a cut-throat consumer recasting of Thomas Gradgrind, Dickens' cold-blooded headmaster from Hard Times, who believed that profit was the only point of learning.

The Lib Dems won the hearts and votes of young people by promising to defend open access to university. Their betrayal of that trust, voting through a trebling of university fees while police beat desperate teenagers outside Parliament, 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 that 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 official 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. We continue to be told this despite the fact that graduate employment is at its lowest level in a generation and a third of those who do have jobs are working in low-skilled positions, stacking shelves and mopping floors.

This manic fantasy of social mobility for a price has sustained a vast student debt bubble in the United States. The American student debt bubble, now valued at more than one trillion dollars, is just as potentially catastrophic as the sub-prime mortgage ponzi scheme, except that there's no way for muscular bailiffs to come round and repossess your education. Student debt, in both Britain and the United States, follows you into the grave.

Special clauses are built into the student loans system ensuring that even if you go bankrupt, you can't ever escape these particular debts. This makes them a fantastic deal for banks, a poor deal for any government that has to weigh the cost of keeping its middle class stressed and docile against loss of future tax revenue, and an exceptionally awful deal for students, their families and anyone else who believes that education is more than just an overpriced ticket to the desk-job that will eventually pay off your education debts.

What young people want is not "more choice", as the minister for education and every other hustler trying to flog public education to the highest bidder have claimed – not when that choice is between lifelong debt and the possibility of never earning a decent living. It matters that we no longer live in a country that believes in training young minds from all backgrounds in science, philosophy and the arts as a collective endeavour that elevates the whole of society.

University applications are down 8.8 per cent this year despite the recession, especially among people from poor backgrounds. There are governments that burn books, and then there are those that sell the libraries and shut the universities to anyone who can't pay for a key.

The Gradgrinds may have won the battle, but they don't have to win the war. Some years ago, I worked as a teacher and mentor for Aimhigher, a programme designed to encourage gifted and talented youngsters from deprived backgrounds to apply to top universities. It was my job to fire up those kids to pursue their dreams of learning. It was my job to listen to them when they talked about the books and ideas they loved, to pay attention to their problems and passions, to reassure them that university wouldn't mean being burdened with lifelong debt, that they would find meaningful, fulfilling work.

That programme has now itself been cut as part of the Government's austerity package, but if I had the chance to talk to those kids again, here's what I'd say.

I'd say, 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 – that's not something you can count on anyway – 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. Enjoy your studies, and whatever you do, don't let them win.

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