Ministers meddle at their peril with the perks of the middle classes

Something tells me top-up fees are likely to provoke the greatest rebellion by Labour MPs since the Government was elected
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'We will not introduce 'top-up' fees and have legislated to prevent them. Since 1997 we have increased university funding by more than a billion pounds a year over the parliament – and invested considerably more in research. Our new system of university finance ensures that 50 per cent of students pay no tuition fees at all, that no parents pay more than under the old system, and that students pay back loans progressively when they are earning. We will ensure that the funding system continues to promote access and excellence."

'We will not introduce 'top-up' fees and have legislated to prevent them. Since 1997 we have increased university funding by more than a billion pounds a year over the parliament – and invested considerably more in research. Our new system of university finance ensures that 50 per cent of students pay no tuition fees at all, that no parents pay more than under the old system, and that students pay back loans progressively when they are earning. We will ensure that the funding system continues to promote access and excellence."

This was the commitment given by the Labour Party in the manifesto on which it fought the last general election, less than 18 months ago. Small wonder, then, that Labour MPs must be in a state of anger and panic over the growing arguments within the Cabinet about university funding. The Government is at pains to stress that this manifesto promise was only for the lifetime of one parliament. But if any Labour MP, grubbing for votes on the doorstep last year, had intimated that this guarantee would not have been other than an indefinite commitment, they would have been mercilessly pilloried. Clare Short, at least, has worked out that this will be seen as a blatant broken promise.

There is something about "free" university education that is ingrained in the psychology of the middle classes and that governments tamper with at their electoral peril. Just about all ministers, now in their 40s and 50s, benefited from the classic "free" grammar, and they all received their higher education free. The phrase "tuition fees" would never even have entered family discussions as proud parents celebrated getting little Gordon, Robin, Jack or Clare into university. All that may have been at issue, when parents considered the cost of supporting their future cabinet offspring, would have been the means-tested local authority maintenance award to pay for books, booze and accommodation. Even the children of the richest parents received in the 1960s and 70s a minimum grant worth £250 at today's prices.

The replacement of the maintenance awards by a student loan system was only grumpily accepted after much dithering by the previous Tory government, and a long transition period was managed without riots in the streets. But even then, it took a decade from the first tentative steps taken in 1985 by Sir Keith Joseph before the new system was at last introduced.

I still shudder at the memory of hundreds of angry letters from aggrieved voters that persuaded me to join in the rumpus at the backbench 1922 Committee meeting in 1985 when Sir Keith was fried alive. He was forced to abandon his modest proposal that the well-off middle classes might pay a copper or two more towards the grant. It was several years before the proposal resurfaced. But even Sir Keith recognised tuition fees were sacrosanct.

Every logical argument makes the case for the current system of tuition fees to be funded on a new basis. But the middle class squeals of pain, on behalf of offspring entering working life already burdened by an average debt of over £10,000, have an even more powerful logic at the ballot box. I would not want to be responsible for the reception a Labour MP will get on the doorstep at the next election.

This is a hornets' nest that the Government will stir up at its peril. Every parent with a child at primary or secondary school will be calculating the potential impact of any change after the election. Already parents of 11- and 12-year-olds will be working out that, by the end of the next parliament, their offspring will be about to apply to go to university. Imagine the consequences where there may be two or three children in a family. So it is not so much the undergraduates, currently at university, who will be the most concerned. It is a whole generation of parents whose children are still playing the recorder who will be the loudest in their protests.

The consultation document published this week by Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, tries to separate the responsibility for funding a student from the parent. Every student from the age of 18 is, it claims, supposedly an adult and should not think of funding in terms of a parental contribution. In this way, so the argument goes, rich and poor students alike should be responsible for the incurring and repayment of the debt.

This is nonsense. The reality is that rich parents will ease the path – even if they squawk with pain – for their children, while those from poorer backgrounds will be discouraged. Margaret Hodge, Mr Clarke's minister for higher education, tries to sell the proposal on the basis that the income of a graduate is, on average, £400,000 more in a lifetime than a non-graduate's. But this hoary old chestnut could have applied at any time during the system of free tuition fees and maintenance awards and would certainly have been rejected by Mr Clarke and Jack Straw when they were presidents of the NUS.

Of course, the Government has a problem. It simply cannot afford the cost of tuition fees from the public purse without an increase in taxation. The truth is that too many students want – and are able – to get into higher education. Too many students and too many higher education places created the problem. Rationing places at good universities by price, however, is seen to be more unacceptable than rationing by strict entry requirements based on qualifications.

Few voters seemed to complain when there was a shortage of university places. Strict control of the standards of A-level entry requirements controlled access to the finite number of places. Perhaps the biggest mistake was to set a target of 50 per cent of 18- to 30-year olds receiving a university education. This has already led to the massive increase in the number of "pretend" universities that were created out of the old polytechnics.

The unnecessary move to "all-graduate professions" for the likes of solicitors, barristers and accountants in the past 30 years has added to the problem. Once you could become a solicitor by being an articled clerk and gaining qualifications at night school. Why it has been necessary to close so many jobs to non-graduates by requiring a degree is beyond me.

But Labour has created a monster it cannot control. The policy of packing off unsuitable students to universities (many of which do not deserve the title) has denied the labour force a supply of qualified builders, plumbers, electricians and engineers while stretching to breaking point the system of financing.

Something tells me that this is likely to provoke the greatest rebellion by Labour MPs since the Government was elected. If 22 out of 23 cabinet members were classic beneficiaries of the traditional "free" system, it is a fair bet that most of Labour's backbench MPs similarly benefited. This is one proposal which is going nowhere and will be buried by the deluge of constituency mail. Mr Clarke's proposed White Paper is unlikely even to see the light of day.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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