Many of us who went to university without having to pay directly to do so understood perfectly well where the money for our education came from. It was provided because the nation recognised it needed a skilled workforce of trained graduates - to govern, to build infrastructure, to make sick people well, and to develop goods for export. My fellow students and I studied how to design vital new homes, schools and hospitals, while our colleagues were similarly training in engineering, science or medicine. The money was found so we could learn how to create national wealth and improve the quality of life.
Our student grants may have covered the basics of sharing a student flat in a Liverpool back street, but our lifestyles were hardly luxurious. Meanwhile, many of our contemporaries were already earning their own income, marrying, buying homes and starting families, while we deferred those ambitions to complete our training. We were willing to do so in the belief that we would be compensated later through higher than average earnings. But we also understood that we would then pay more incometax which, in turn, would be used (in part) for our universities to educate future generations.
These notions of national goals and inter-generational relationships seem to have been lost in arguments about costs and benefits to the individual, and Andreas Whittam Smith's confessions about his own limited motives in going to university do little to remind us of the bigger picture.