In many ways, 1998 seems a long time ago. It was before 9/11 and the war in Iraq. It was before any of us had heard about Al Qaeda, nevermind the War on Terror. It was before Hurricane Katrina, and before the sequencing of the human genome. Quite an unassuming year, in fact. Yes, it was the year of the Omagh bombing, and the opening of the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge.
More significantly for many in the UK, however, it was the beginning of a very slippery slope.
Tuition fees were first introduced in the UK by the Labour Government under Tony Blair, and students who began their undergraduate degrees with me that October had to fork out up to £1,250 for the privilege. And this was means tested, whether or not parents/family were prepared to offer support. University applications decreased for the first time in a while that year, and UCAS data show that it was the poorer students who were put off most.
In 2006, students in England and Wales had Top-Up fees imposed on them, also by the Labour Government, taking the price of a degree to over £3,000 per year. Unsurprisingly, university applications took a dip that year too. In Scotland, the case was slightly different, with a graduate endowment being imposed instead of up-front fees. This was scrapped by the SNP in 2007.
The proposed trebling of tuition fees from 2012 will have a catastrophic effect on education, young people’s lives, and the economy. How many young people, aged 17, come from families that can afford £9,000 a year for a degree, on top of the ever increasing accommodation and other living costs? What does it say about the current coalition Government that they have decided not to invest in education, but instead have chosen to price the majority out of this public good?
As a lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University, I know what it means for people to be the first in their family to come to a university, to become independent thinkers and learners, and to graduate in spite of difficult circumstances. If Scotland had tuition fees, most of my students would not be at university at all. Scotland has always valued education differently to the rest of the UK, and thankfully so. So we must very definitely and defiantly stand up with our colleagues in England and Wales, and fight against the proposals that will see generations of young people deprived of the right to broaden their minds, simply because Mummy and Daddy couldn’t afford to send them to Eton.
I am angry about the proposals of this coalition government to treble fees, especially when this means breaking a promise to abolish fees. But I am angrier at those who opened the floodgates 12 years ago. The party of the people? I think not. We said then that the increasing of fees would be inevitable after they were introduced … and sadly, we were right. Labour laid the foundations for what we see now: a government determined to attack the poor and the young in order to make the rich richer. Why is it ok for the wealthiest 1000 people to increase their wealth by £77 billion last year (that’s more than one third of our £167 billion deficit!), but not ok to fund Higher Education? Student fees, and the public services cuts that are being introduced alongside them, are not necessary. They are a choice made on behalf of the rich against the poor and most vulnerable. I will not take this sitting down.
Neither should you!