TOP-UP tuition fees for universities have created a huge political row. New Labour ruled out top-up fees in its last election manifesto, but the government is now playing with even worse proposals. It is refusing to rule out privatising universities under the World Trade Organisation's drive to introduce the market into services.
People are putting the blame on Andrew Adonis, the ex Oxford don who is one of Tony Blair's closest advisers and a strong advocate of top-up fees. Adonis is also a former Liberal Democrat, and has been blamed for Estelle Morris's resignation as education secretary.
British universities are suffering from a chronic crisis of underfunding. Access to higher education hugely increased in the 1990s, at the same time as the resources allocated per student steadily fell. As a result students suffer overcrowded seminars and facilities. Morale is rock bottom among academic staff. They have experienced an increased teaching burden, a decline in their relative pay, and enormous pressure to meet various government-imposed targets.
New Labour continued the Tory policy of university expansion on the cheap. After the 1997 election it scrapped the student grant and introduced tuition fees of £1,000 a head. This has merely increased student poverty and discouraged people from poorer backgrounds from going to university.
For the past few years a small group of leading universities, known as the Russell Group, have been campaigning to be allowed to charge students more - the so called top-up fees.
They say that this would give them the money to spend more on recruiting top academics, and so stay in the league of 'world-class universities'. Behind this campaign for top-up fees is a model provided by the US university system.
This is incredibly hierarchical, with a handful of mainly private universities at the top sitting on huge investments in the stockmarket and property. Lower down the food chain are state universities and community colleges with far smaller resources. The elite cream off the most academically qualified students, who they can offer highly paid star professors and, where necessary, financial support. Bizarrely enough, some New Labour ministers - notably Gordon Brown - believe the US system is more egalitarian than the British because of the financial help rich universities can give to poor students.
But anyone familiar with US education knows the huge amounts of money that wealthy families put into ensuring that their children get the scores needed to get into the top universities. These universities themselves run special courses to coach upper middle class children, often barely in their teens.
The mass of working class students are left to pay for their own education at the much poorer state universities and community colleges. The staff there are often more committed than their grander counterparts. But they have to struggle with huge teaching burdens and poor facilities. The stark social inequalities of this set-up were dramatised in a report in last weekend's Observer newspaper.
It focused on New Haven, the Connecticut town where Yale, one of the US's most famous universities, is based. New Haven is the fourth poorest city in the United States. It has the same infant mortality rate as Malaysia, and AIDS is carrying off many poor people. Yet Yale, which has tax exempt endowments worth $11 billion, contributes nothing to alleviate these problems.
According to the Observer, 'A consortium of community groups asked the university to donate a single day's interest on its invested endowment - that's $5.2 million - to the city's schools. So far, no response.'
It is this brutally unequal university system that the supporters of top-up fees want to introduce into Britain. Already we have moved a long way in that direction, with an elite of 'research universities' like the Russell Group emerging, and students having to work to support themselves while they are studying.
And how would the opponents of top-up fees address the university funding crisis? The answer is simple. We will only get a decent higher education system - and all the other public services we need - when we have a system of progressive income and wealth taxes.That can force the rich to make a real contribution to the society from which they have taken so much.
Dobson Slams Blair's Policies
ANOTHER 'LOYAL' Blair supporter came out last weekend to slam New Labour's policies. Former health secretary Frank Dobson laid into the government's 'elitist' policies in education and health. His attack follows bitter criticism of the government from former Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam.
She recently attacked Blair's plans for war on Iraq, saying, 'Under the cover of the war on terrorism the war to secure oil supplies could be waged.' Frank Dobson was the candidate Blair put up to try to beat Ken Livingstone in the 2000 election for London mayor.
But last weekend Dobson criticised two key government policies. In the Observer newspaper he said that plans to force university students to pay thousands in top-up fees were 'elitist'. 'University funding won't be solved by turning higher education into a marketplace,' he said. Dobson went on to condemn the government's 'foundation hospitals'. These are a further step towards privatisation of the whole NHS, and will be announced in the Queen's Speech on Wednesday of next week.
Dobson said, 'Foundation hospitals aren't to be applied across the country. Instead a small elite, 12 at the outset, are to be singled out for special privileges and extra resources. Not the 12 worst performing hospitals, but the 12 best performing hospitals.'
He said 'the elitists' justify this on the grounds that 'the hospitals deserve it. But this displays an obsession with institutions rather than the people they serve.' 'No Labour MP fought the last election on a promise of a two-tier system with 12 hospitals in the top tier,' said Dobson.
His attacks have won support from senior Labour backbenchers. Ian Gibson said of student fees, 'This is my Waterloo. It goes against everything I have ever thought was worth fighting for.'
Students saddled with debt
- New Labour abolished grants for students in 1997 and introduced tuition fees in 1998. Students in Scotland were made exempt from tuition fees after a revolt.
- Some 50 percent of students currently pay £1,100 in tuition fees each year. Top-up fees mean universities could charge what they like.
- Some in the elite Russell Group of universities have already discussed what fees they would like. They are: Imperial College, London, £10,500 a year; University College London, £7,000 a year; Warwick University £6,000 a year; Oxford University £7,000-£8,000 a year.
- Parents have to start paying tuition fees if they have a joint gross income of more than £20,480 a year. That means a bus driver and an office worker have to pay to send their child to university.
- If a mature student has a partner with a gross income of more than £17,615 a year then tuition fees have to be paid.
- Students already leave college with an average debt of £10,000-£15,000 because of student loans and fees.
- Courses like medicine last four to five years. That means even more debt. Applications to do medicine from students from poorer backgrounds halved between 1996 and 2001.
- New Labour claims graduates earn on average £400,000 more over their lifetime than do non-graduates. But the government wants half of all under 30s to take a degree by 2010. That means employers are likely to lower wages as more people with degrees look for jobs.