Mo Mowlam: We don't need so many to go to university

The present government policy is ripping the Labour Party apart, and not helping our young
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No more top-up fees. Now we are going to have "individualised graduate tax". From the story in the papers this week it appears that the Government has decided to come clean that top-up fees are in fact a tax, and call them such. This bit of honesty by the Secretary of State, Charles Clarke, is to be welcomed.

But will the same honesty apply elsewhere? We are informed that the actual detail of the policy earlier announced as top-up fees is not going to change. All that is needed is for the policy to be explained better; particularly to the hundred or so Labour backbenchers it is feared will vote against such a change. And of course the name change.

This is not good enough. What the Government really needs to do is to go back to the basics of its higher education policy. To ask the question, what is higher education for? And how do we best ensure that its allocation is fair and efficient? Playing around with the wording does not meet this challenge.

One of the most powerful speeches that Neil Kinnock ever made included the famous passage where he referred to his own university education, and how that had been such an exception for members of his family. For many of us this touched a nerve. I too was the only member of my family to go to university. It was not something that people like us did. It was a great privilege, and a great opportunity that had been granted to me by the changes in the country's education system since the Second World War.

Of course, when I went to Durham University in 1968 I did not have to consider paying my tuition fees, nor my maintenance, although I had to work to earn enough money to meet more than just the basics. But I did leave university with a degree and no debt.

Many in the Labour Party shared, or witnessed, similar experiences, and drew the conclusion that we should provide the same opportunity to others. The target is now that 50 per cent should regularly be educated up to degree level. A noble aim, one may think, but one that has led to the present problem. We cannot afford such a large number of undergraduates. So we accept the need for new taxes, falling standards within universities and poor pay and conditions for university teachers. Are we best serving the people of Britain by continuing down this road? I don't think so.

Looking specifically at individualised graduate tax (not exactly a catchy and memorable phrase) we can immediately see a number of problems, principal among them being that burdening young people at the beginning of their careers with a considerable debt is not a good thing. It will tend to be those from poorer backgrounds who end up with this debt, as the more affluent will strive to not leave their children with such a disadvantage.

It may create a psychology of debt, which may lead these people to carry irresponsibly large levels of debt for the rest of their lives. It may also have a distorting effect on the labour market. Young graduates may shun lower-paid public sector jobs, seeking greater financial rewards in less congenial and useful jobs in the private sector, just to get back to a financially better position.

Whatever the effects, it is unlikely that it will lead to a fairer system, where people reach their true potential regardless of their backgrounds. The aims of the earlier educational reformers will be abandoned.

The reason why the Government has got itself into such a ridiculous muddle is that it has confused the issue of getting people to reach their full academic potential with trying to have as many people as possible getting a degree. Equality requires mass consumption. If only a minority get a degree, this is in some way regarded as élitist.

But the truth is that a university degree is not the best educational attainment for the majority of people. Most jobs do not require such a level of education, although I firmly believe that education should not just be about what job you get. But for many, a university education provides little in terms of other personal development. Joining the job market earlier, or learning vocational skills, could be much more beneficial to the individual and society as a whole. Becoming a plumber or a butcher, rather than a teacher, is now a job with real security.

I know this is a case that many may find unpalatable, but we must recognise that the striving for equality should not blind us to the fact that we are different. We cannot all be a concert pianist, or a David Beckham. In the same way, a university education does not suit everyone.

If the Government could just recognise this simple point, then it could return to its job of improving the standards of university education to those who go there. It could also, just as importantly, make sure that those who should go to university, regardless of their backgrounds, actually get there, and are not penalised for their efforts by having a large level of debt hanging round their necks.

The present policy is ripping the Labour Party apart, and not helping our young people or the country. We are victims of woolly thought from both sides of the argument. We need to spend more public money on each individual student. But the point is, we don't need so many going to university.

The author was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, 1997-9