Last week all of the main party leaders appeared on Question Time and faced a question and answer session with an audience made up of a cross-section of the public (one by one - Tony Blair refused to have a presidential style debate). It was pretty much a damp squib: no one asked Charles Kennedy a particularly challenging question and he performed well, Michael Howard looked and behaved like a creature of the night and Tony Blair was booed when he came on, struggled to manage the hostility of the audience and started to sweat under the pressure of some pretty tame questions.
It was rubbish really, but one thing has stayed with me. Blair was challenged by an angry student over the introduction of student top-up fees.
In the good old days, not only was Further Education completely free, but each student was given a "grant" each term - a cash handout to help them through the term. By the time I was a student (1992-1995) there had been some changes to the system: my tuition was paid by my Local Education Authority, but the grants were now means tested, and the student loans company had been set up to provide borrowing at a "reasonable" rate. This remained the case until the Labour Government came to power in 1997. Acting on the recommendations of the Dearing Report that had been commissioned by the John Major government, an up-front, means tested tuition fee of £1,125 was introduced, and student grants were abolished altogether. This was extended by the Higher Education bill, passed in 2004, will mean that Universities will be able to 'top up' this tuition fee charge to £3000 from 2006.
This has had a massive impact: the average student in England & Wales now leaves University with a debt of £12,069. It is estimated by the National Institute Economic Review that the introduction of top up fees will triple this.
When I left University (after completing a Masters degree), I was not in debt, thanks mainly to the generosity of my parents, but also to the succession of holiday jobs I had taken on (silver service waiter, barman, warehouse worker, the post office night shift... and so on and so forth, until I landed a full-time job working in HMV as I applied for graduate jobs). It staggers me to think that young graduates are now leaving university with a degree and something like £30,000 worth of debt. If they are lucky they will get a graduate job at around £15,000 a year. They face years and years of debt.
And all this from a Labour Government. Not all that surprising then that this guy was so angry at Blair for introducing these changes.
Hang on though.
Tony Blair also made some interesting points in his defence. He had received his education free, but only 1% of the population attended university at the time. Now the numbers were closer to 40% of the population, and the state simply cannot afford to pay for that number of people to have their Further Education for free, and who else should pay for it if not the main beneficiaries?
The inquisitor was not pacified by this. He refused to see this as the answer and thought it was unfair. He had spoken to several graduates, and they had all indicated that they would be more than happy to pay some sort of graduate tax....
I believe that the opportunity to go to University should be open to everyone, not just to those people who can afford it. That is not the same thing as saying that everybody should go to University. The only benchmark for access to University should be your intellect. This is where Labour have got it wrong - it has been a key Labour policy to get as many people into University as possible, so frankly they have only got themselves to blame when some of these people get angry about how these places get funded.
There are now hundreds of universities and colleges of further education in this country. Thousands of impoverished students are graduating every year and the job market is flooded with them. Whatever the Government may think, no one can tell me that all degrees are created equal. There is no way that I am going to pay any kind of "graduate tax" for some pissante on a cultural studies course at the University of Luton.
and now that I've started to rant about it:
- How come parents are now buying their kids houses in University towns? I didn't know a single person at university who owned a house.... how is it cheaper to buy a house than to rent one for a couple of years?
- When I was a student, I ate a whole lot of baked potatos and pasta and did the whole weekly shop on £10. How come a load of the students that I see in Sainsbury's each week are buying Stella Artois and Ben & Jerry's?
- and they all seem to have cars....
- and don't even get me started on their haircuts.....
The polls are open from 7am until 10pm tomorrow, and in spite of my dissatisfaction with the whole election campaign, I will be making use of my mandate at some point during the day. I disagree with the Labour government on several key issues (the war in Iraq and ID cards being the two big ones that spring to mind), but I think I will be casting my vote for them again this time. Tony Blair is not perfect by any means, but I still think he represents a better bet than any of the alternatives. Actually, forget Blair; this election should not be won or lost solely on the basis of personality. Labour have made some massive mistakes, but they have also done some good stuff over the last few years, especially with the economy, and I haven't forgotten what a unprincipled bunch of shits the last Conservative government were either... this lot are angels by comparison. It's not much to go on, I agree, and my little gesture won't mean much in a safe Conservative seat, but... well... it's what I'm going to do.