Issue 211 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1997 Copyright © Socialist Review

Stack on the back

Pat Stack

The speed with which New Labour is disappointing people has to be seen to be believed. By far the biggest shock has come with the announcement that a government elected on a priority of Education, Education, Education had forgotten to add the rest of the slogan­as long as you pay for it, pay for it, pay for it.

The announcement that the government was proposing to introduce a fee for university education shocked and angered many. Here was Labour doing something the Tories had never dared do. On top of that, Labour was going even further than the Dearing Report had recommended and scrapping the student grant altogether.

So now going to university will no longer be a case of getting the right qualifications to enable you to enrol, it will also require a calculation as to the level of debt each student and/or their parents can afford. In other words Labour is turning higher education into a privilege, not a right.

'Oh no we're not', comes back the coordinated chorus of new Labour spokespeople. I say coordinated because following the announcement there came a three part harmony so tight that every word was identical.

'There was never a golden age when working class kids went to university,' said Kim Howells, Minister for Lifelong Learning! 'There was never a golden age when working class kids went to university,' intoned Secretary of State for Education David Blunkett. Just to drive the point home new New Labour MP Lorna Fitzsimons pointed out that yes you've guessed it, 'There was never a golden age when working class kids went to university.'

To add insult to injury Fitzsimons, a former president of the National Union of Students, now explained that the lack of a golden age was because the working class is composed of oiks who glory in academic failure and despise educational achievement.

All of which is an insult to our intelligence. Of course there was no golden age when universities were crammed with the sons and daughters of the poor. But there was a significant change in the class basis of higher education.

Access to higher education in the past had been the exclusive privilege of the sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie­spoilt, privileged products of the ruling class training themselves to be ruling class. The odd oik might be allowed to join this elite company, but everyone knew they were scholarship students, viewed almost as charity freaks.

By the time I got to poly in the 1970s, things could not have been more different. I, along with the overwhelming majority of my classmates, was part of the first generation from our background going to higher education.

We were the children of the lower middle classes, the white collar and skilled manual working classes. We were not the privileged elite. Maybe not a golden age but sparkly enough compared to what had gone before.

Alongside us was another group, older students, overwhelmingly working class, who at the age of 11 had been dumped into secondary modern schools, written off as unfit for mental labour. These mature students were grasping at a chance denied them earlier. Many were making financial sacrifices to return to education. How many would have come with today's built in student debt? For although we were all to build up some debts while at college, money was not the huge problem it has become for today's students. We had grants, not big enough to avoid debt, but by and large big enough to keep that debt to manageable levels.

We received travel allowances, and during every vacation received unemployment and housing benefits. None of this meant luxury but it meant that most students could avoid having to try to combine the studies with working every available hour in the evenings and the weekends to make ends meet, as do many students today.

What were we all going to become when we graduated? To be honest, few of us knew. I raise this because I heard a right wing academic on the radio saying fees were good because they would make students stop to think whether they really wanted to go to university, what job they wanted at the end of it, and what their earning potential was going to be?

Strange, but at the time we thought, indeed most of those who taught us thought, that education was a good thing in itself. We believed that broadening your knowledge, however imperfectly was a good thing, a positive thing, something that enhanced the quality of your life.

Of course the promise of higher education and the reality didn't always match. Of course there was alienation, frustration, hatred of the lottery of the exam system. Of course we sought escape through drink and chemical release. But we were not staring at decades of debts, of an involuntary mortgage on learning, on a conveyor belt notion of education, and a scrabble to avoid unemployment. No, there was no golden age but this seems little reason to retreat to a dark age of educational privilege for the select few, and financial penalty and academic exclusion for the many.

For when all is said and done that is where Blunkett, Howells, and Fitzsimons are taking us.

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