'WHAT'S WRONG with elitism?' The fact that education secretary Charles Clarke asked this question tells us exactly where he is coming from. He and the whole cabinet are engulfed in a crisis about university funding which goes to the heart of the New Labour project.
They are considering forcing students to pay tens of thousands of pounds to study at top universities - something even Thatcher dared not do. It shows how far Labour has abandoned the hopes generations of people had that the party stood for equality.
Higher education minister Margaret Hodge sounded like an old Tory bigot when she told students, 'There's no such thing as a free lunch.' Bringing in top-up fees will give universities like Oxford and Cambridge vast sums for research and facilities. The majority of students will be forced into a tier of second class, underfunded colleges. And they will still have to pay £1,100 in tuition fees every year to attend.
Former cabinet minister Stephen Byers explained, 'At a time of globalisation we face a worldwide battle for talent. 'If we are to succeed we must have world class university departments that can attract the leading players in their field, the Ronaldos and Beckhams of the academic world.'
But education should be about enhancing everyone's lives and developing all their different abilities, not labelling some as premiership material and relegating others to the third division. It should not be aimed solely at boosting earning power. The film Educating Rita gives a sense of the positive impact studying at university can have on working class people.
Learning how to express yourself and appreciate things like art and music are as valuable as learning how to input data or learn maths by rote. The rich have always been able to buy their way into every level of education. Fees at some private schools are more than £20,000 a year. This is more than many workers like nurses or postal workers earn in an entire year.
One of the key policies that wedded working class people to the Labour Party was the idea of a welfare state providing services for everyone, rich and poor. Thousands of working class people had their confidence and hopes shattered by the despised old grammar school system.
At 11 years old children were divided into a minority who were creamed off for grammar schools, while the rest were labelled failures and dumped in underfunded secondary moderns. Comprehensive education, introduced by Labour in the 1960s, aimed at giving all children an equal chance.
New teaching methods were about trying to engage kids rather than forcing them to digest dry facts. This had a huge impact in raising standards. A number of people from working class backgrounds become the first in their family to go to university.
But it was never a fair and equal system. Children from manual and most white collar backgrounds were still discriminated against at all levels of the education system. A range of differently funded schools and different ways of selecting pupils have ensured that discrimination still continues.
Now Blair and his public school clique want to dump any pretence of striving for equality. Their hypocrisy knows no bounds. They benefited from grants, and some crawled onto the career ladder via student politics. Now they want to turn the clock back.
Top-up fees will put university even further out of reach. Any family with an income of just £20,480 has to start paying fees. If that income reaches £30,502 they have to pay the full fees. The government's own Audit Commission says fear of debt puts young people from poorer backgrounds off going to university.
It's not just the debt. People's whole experience of the education system can mean they are turned off university. A survey by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service found that 'confidence is a key issue for all students from underrepresented groups'. That confidence can be crushed after children have gone through the 105 tests in the National Curriculum during their school lives.
Many young people from working class backgrounds don't have access to resources of books and computers. No one in the New Labour cabinet is prepared to stand up for them. Some ministers don't like tuition fees but they are too deeply immersed in the New Labour project to see any better method of funding.
Instead they question whether so many people should go to college at all, or they mutter about bringing in higher taxes for graduates. We should tax the rich, whether they are graduates or not. We can resist Blair and his attempts to 'do a Thatcher' with our education.
£10,000 is the amount of debt that an average student who graduated this year has, according to the Nat West bank
£13,422 is the average starting salary for graduates working outside London
£15,000 is the amount of debt that the National Union of Students says today's students will leave university with in 2005