Just to get this clear from the start, I’m fully in favor of free higher education and I’m totally opposed to Tuition Fees. It’s one of the reasons I joined the Lib Dems in the first place. This blog post stems from a couple of conversations I’ve had with friends, voters and others on the internet, the doorstep and other places over the last few weeks.
The student protests over the decision to raise fees, were important in places violent and certainly vocal. They set the stage and quite rightly gave a good slap to all the Lib Dem MPs who broke the pledge that they made not to raise them. Even as a loyal party member, I’m still annoyed at those MPs who did break the pledge.
However, it is possible that in wider public, the protests which were both about the decision to raise fees and the fact that we’d promised if elected we’d try to scrap tuition fees actually backfired on the protestors?
The first conversation alluded to earlier was with a friend who I knew before I came to university. He’s currently on a gap year and is filling his time with the TA until he heads off to university next year. A slightly unfortunate turn of circumstances bearing in mind that had he been able to head off to University last year, he’d have been paying just £3000 in fees. He was telling a story of having been at a mess dinner and told someone that he was on a gap year. The revelation that he was a student apparently caused uproar. Not because it was unusual, but because the others present apparently viewed students as believing themselves a “privileged elite” who felt entitled to free education. We’re not talking about a bunch of bankers or politicians saying this, we’re talking about a group of guys who take their spare time out to form the reserve force for our Armed Forces, who lets face it, get a fairly raw deal in comparison to students. Even under the new fees regime.
Leading on from this I was out canvassing last weekend and was having a conversation with a woman who correctly discerned, most likely from my appearance that I was in fact a student. Logically the issue of fees came up and after explaining why I was still out canvassing for the Lib Dems explained that whilst she too would like to see education free, she didn’t think it was particularly feasible in the current economic and political climate. But what really got to her about the issue was that she perceived to be was that at a time when everyone was suffering, students felt that they alone had a right to be protected from cuts, or in this case an increase of fees.
Obviously I wouldn’t completely agree with these statements, but for two people within a handful of days to come out with something, totally unprompted and so completely in sync with each other surprised me and to be honest it got me thinking about my own motives. On the one hand I believe that the best way to open up University to those who are most able to benefit from it is for there to be no fees. Those who are capable, should be able to go, without hindrance. It’s also my opinion that education is an investment, the government by funding Higher Education will benefit longer term in vast proportion to the initial cost outlay. But to be honest it’s not just about that, there’s a sneaking little bit of selfishness in that. I don’t want to have to pay back my tuition fees, I don’t want my brother to pay them and I don’t want my kids to have to pay them back either.
But to answer the original question, did the student protests harm our cause? I’d say it’s highly probable that in a time when everyone is getting hit, students who don’t exactly have the worst lot in society demanding that they pay back a grand total less money after they graduate (the new system does at least have lower monthly repayments) was perhaps a tad unrealistic and perhaps even a smacked a tad of entitlement.
Longer term, I doubt that this will prevent us from achieving a long term goal of free higher education, if not for all then at least for those who most need it. There will be other challenges that this one in achieving that particular goal. Mostly electoral and political ones. But for the time being, there may be a certain level of alienation between students and normal people due to this particular interpretation of the student protests.
To sum up and leave you with a positive note, I figured I’d call on the superb writing of Aaron Sorkin and the writing staff of the West Wing, which very much encapsulates my outlook on the issue of fees in higher education, with this memorable line from Sam Seaborn:
“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.”