This year the government turns back the clock. Conservative policy will rewind generations of social progress, creating a system of higher education so expensive that it discourages all but the wealthiest students. We’re going back to our grandparents’ time, where privilege won, and the less well off always lost out.
My grandad passed his 11-plus in 1937. But on the first day of school he didn’t turn up. His parents worked in a factory, on too long shifts for too little pay. They couldn’t afford the uniform the local grammar insisted every pupil wore. So my grandfather never went to that school. The cost of a blazer and smart trousers denied a little boy a good education and a different life. My grandfather was a clever man. But his talent was lost and his potential wasted. He left school at 14 and became a lorry driver. He spent his life frustrated that his intelligence wasn’t reflected in his job.
My mum started university in the 80s. My grandad cried when she graduated, proud that his daughter was the first person in their family to get a degree. She went to the grammar school he never did, wearing school jumpers hand-knitted from magazine patterns. My mum’s education was free. My grandad never had to pay a penny. He said that was progress.
My grandad used to walk me home from my countryside primary school, along the footpath that led to his council bungalow. He would ask me what I’d learnt that day and tell me about his school days, the opportunities he missed. He said it was different now, not like when he was a boy. Hard work gets rewarded, he promised.
I listened, and worked hard through school, starting a medical degree in 2005. But I’ve struggled to pay for a long course. I started university before Labour’s top-up fees, but my overdraft is still at breaking point. I left medical school with debts of £40,000. I’m working as a doctor but budgeting like a student to pay off my loans.
If I was taking my A-levels today, facing tuition fees of £9,000, I wouldn’t go to medical school. The British Medical Association estimates students starting in 2012 will leave £70,000 in debt. This is too much to face. I’d be in the same position as my grandfather 70 years ago. Able to achieve, but held back by money.
The coalition is creating a lost generation, where the intelligent lose out to inequality. The UK today is the most expensive place in the world to get an education. And a tripling in tuition fees is only the beginning. Some 10,000 university places have already been cut. Michael Gove’s education bill withdraws support for the most vulnerable students in higher education. A system based on ability is being replaced by one where breeding beats brains, where wealth is more important than intellect. This is how it used to be, before the welfare state, before education was considered a universal right. When only the rich could afford to study.
But then the likes of David Cameron and George Osborne have never had to worry about paying for education. The new fees mean our future leaders are unlikely to be the daughters of greengrocers like Margaret Thatcher, or sons of vicars like Gordon Brown. That isn’t progress.
In 2003, Gove said that any student put off by a hike in tuition fees “doesn’t deserve to be at any university in the first place”. If that’s true, I don’t deserve to be a doctor. My grandfather didn’t deserve the opportunity of an education. And a generation of young people don’t deserve a future.
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