I once counted up my cousins and got a figure above 50. That seems high – maybe I was including some second cousins. But anyway, it’s a large family, and I was the first to go to university. That was only possible because of historic reforms which had eventually brought third-level education to those who weren’t rich or privileged. But it was only a brief window, from the 1962 Education Act which established means-tested free education, to the introduction of student loans in 1988.
Having had an education, I can calculate that as 26 years during which there was an opportunity for poor students to go to university, or about 3% of the history of universities. Back in 1988, not long after I graduated, the new loan system left students owing £1,200 — equivalent to about £3,000 today — but with further increases to the amount that students are expected to borrow, their debt now can be around £20,000. The new proposals in Lord Browne’s report for the government would initially raise that to about £30,000. (With 30 years to pay.)
Browne proposes that the loan repayments should depend on post-graduation income, in spite of the fact that it would mean that the richest would pay less overall. A civil servant on £25,000 with a salary that rises £1,000 every year would pay £44,600 over 30 years. However, a banker starting on £60,000 with a salary rise of £3,000 every year will pay back £27,900 over seven years. Students rich enough to pay tuition fees without a loan will pay least of all.
(Incidentally, Lord Browne has a personal solution to paying the state too much: claim offshore status. It’s been calculated that if he actually paid the proper amount of tax, it would fund 3,500 students.)
It’s a false perception that the early student loan amount was a modest debt, cheerfully taken on and easily repaid. A middle-class view. To the poor, at least to Doolittle’s “deserving poor”, any debt is a frightening thing. I’m absolutely sure that if the loan system had been in place when I was 18, I would never have applied for university, and I’m not an exception. The proportion of poorer students at university has steadily fallen since 1988. The current demographics show that teenagers in the richest areas can expect a better than 50% chance of going to university, while in the poorest neighbourhoods it is 10%. To quote one of the newspapers: “Universities are an expanding closed shop, filled by more stupid middle-class children.”
I can entirely understand that the Conservatives in government will welcome Browne’s proposals, because with typical small-minded, short-sighted mentality, all they see is the state funding a service to citizens. Transferring the cost to the most easily-identifiable beneficiaries, the graduates themselves, is an obvious response. The value to the nation of widespread higher education seems not to be a consideration.