There’s a lot of talk now about the coalition government move to raise the cap on university tuition fees. For what’s it’s worth, I don’t know what the solution to university funding is, although I do feel that the emphasis on getting 50% of the population to go to a university simply to do a degree, any degree, is seriously missing the point1.

Anyhow, yesterday I read a piece in the London Evening Standard by their City Editor Chris Blackhurst (who’s perhaps a little older than me, but probably a fellow Generation Xer), in which he strongly opposed the raising of the tuition fees cap. It’s a good, fairly written, and passionate piece, but he managed to completely rub me up the wrong way with one particular angle that he was taking. Here’s the relevant bits (emphasis mine):

In our days, as I recall, we never had this double-whammy worry. We got a grant from the local council and we spent it. If we wanted more, we got casual work, we asked the bank manager or our parents, or both.

We weren’t bothered about being saddled with heavy debts when we graduated: what jobs we would end up doing and, more to the point, how much they paid, never dominated our thinking. When we did get jobs, we were able to join the property ladder and to take out mortgages — we did not have a sizeable loan already hanging over us.

How can we do this? We, the people that enjoyed free education, that basked in the lengthy post-war prosperity of our parents’ generation and the expansion of the university system? How dare we turn round now and tell our children to pay so much?

And that dilemma is not one they should face. It’s not one that we had to confront and neither should our successors. Our hypocrisy in this regard is appalling. Shame on us.

Of course, upon reading that, my deep, gut reactions was: what’s with this “we” shit? You might have gone to university Chris, but I didn’t, and neither did hardly anyone I knew2. I just didn’t come from the sort of background3 where people went to university, and as a result I was frankly too scared to go.

People seem to be harking back to a “golden age” where everyone got to go to university for free, but there never was such a golden age. Some people (ten percent maybe, with a disproportionate number of them coming from good middle-class backgrounds) were given free university educations, paid for by the taxes of a whole bunch of people whose own children weren’t going to go to university.

Taxing the poor to educate the rich seems to me neither fair nor progressive, and now that the poor have decided that they’d quite like to go to university too, it’s become horribly apparent that it’s going to need more money.

Like I said, I don’t know the solution. But let’s not kid ourselves about how great it was in the past, because it wasn’t.

1People say this will enable those people getting degrees to earn more money. But how? And why? The way to help everyone in the country earn more money is to train them to provide goods and services the the rest of the world wishes to purchase. But historically, the reason why people with generic liberal-arts degrees earned more money was because in an era when only 10% of people got a degree, possession of a degree would take you straight into the top 10% of management jobs, where you would be a highly paid “chief” bossing around nine lowly paid “indians”. Those liberal-arts degrees made their possessor’s richer, but they didn’t make the country any richer. If we succeeded in getting 50% of people to have some sort of generic degree that won’t mean 50% of all jobs will now be highly-paid managerial positions. It will simply mean that if you want a top 10% highly-paid managerial position, you’ll need at least a masters degree, if not a Phd. So I fear we risk spending huge amounts of money and saddling kids with massive debts, only for them to end up doing the same 20-30k generic white collar jobs that they would have ended up doing thirty years ago, except that then they’d have started them at 16 instead of 21.

2There were 250 people in my year at school. Of those, 16 (6%) stayed on to do A Levels. Most of them failed those A Levels. I know of at least one person who went to a university or polytechnic to do a degree level course (Lawrence, who went to the University of Lancaster to do maths). I think one, perhaps two max, of the girls went to a university as well. And my friend Stuart who left school after O Levels and got a job in a bank later went back to College to get a BTEC National Diploma in computing, and then, on the strength of that, went to Bristol Polytechnic (now the University of the West of England). So that’s somewhere between 0.4% and 1.6% going to university or polytechnic.

3At the time I got to 18, I knew of only one person in my family, ever, who’d gone to university, and that was a great-grandfather (my mother’s, father’s father, who was quite well off, but then did for his family by dying young of TB). Other than that, of my mother, my father, my brother, my two older cousins, my two uncles and my three aunts, my three great-aunts, and my four grand-parents, not one had been to university. That’s not to say that they were stupid, or even ill-educated. Both my mother and my uncle Alan were teachers (two-year and three-year teaching certificates respectively), my father was a surveyor (part-time Higher National Certificate in Mining Surveying), my uncle Gerry was a policeman, my auntie Ruth was a nurse, and my auntie Jean got very high up in the civil service. Since then, my two younger cousins have both got degrees and my uncle Alan got an Open University degree. But at the time, university seemed a scary place full of better educated kids from posh schools – so I went to a local college and got a BTEC (in cartography and surveying).