Stephen Williams MP - working hard for Bristol West

What price for a Degree?

Written by Stephen Williams and published in Bristol West End News on Mon 2nd Dec 2002

Here we go again. In 1997 Labour said that they had no plans to introduce tuition fees for students. Once they'd won the election they introduced tuition fees. Just for good measure they abolished grants and replaced them with loans.

In the 2001 general election Labour said they had no plans to allow universities to charge 'top-up' fees. Call me a cynic but it looks as though parents and prospective students had better start saving for top up fees. The Downing Street spin machine is quite clearly preparing the ground for yet another assault on free to access higher education.

I'm a Bristol University graduate and rather proud that I went to one of the country's top universities. My school, a fairly rough south Wales comprehensive, sent few students to university. It was even more unusual to aim as high as Bristol. But I was determined to get here. I got the grades and got a full grant. If I'd been told that in order to go to university I would have to borrow a large amount of money then my determination might have waned. Maybe I would have gone to a less prestigious university in a cheaper part of the country. Maybe I would have got a job in a bank and not bothered with university, like most of my school contemporaries. Coming to Bristol changed my life. Most of the current members of Mr Blair's cabinet got the same chance in life. Now they want to kick the ladder away.

My first impression of Bristol undergraduates was that there weren't many from schools like mine. More than half had gone to a private school. Those that had gone to a state school tended to be from grammars, not comprehensives. In the 1990s Bristol realised that it drew its students from a narrow social base and made a serious effort to widen access. The problem of student debt and the perception of Bristol as an elite and expensive place to study hinders that effort. Top up fees will stop it in its tracks.

During last year's election I met hundreds of students, all of whom had debts of over £10,000. What a way to start your career. The government spins that graduates earn £400,000 more over their working life than non graduates. Excuse me? Maybe merchant bankers and City lawyers get that level of graduate premium. But what about a nurse, or a teacher? Nurses start on £16,005. That doesn't go far in Bristol's accommodation market, particularly when they have to pay back their accumulated debts from their student days.

This comes down to values. I believe in a society that gives all its citizens different chances during their lives. We should all pay for those chances through fair taxation. We have progressive income tax with higher rates for those on higher earnings. Doesn't that mean that high salaried graduates are already paying back into society's pot for future chances for others to enjoy a degree? We already have a graduate tax and I don't mind paying it.

New Labour seems to believe in a country with low income taxes (Gordon Brown cut income tax remember)with services and benefits increasingly funded or accessed by a mix of charges and means testing. They have calculated the price of higher education but have no concept of its value. For many Labour supporters top up fees will be the last straw. Is there anyone left who still thinks that "things can only get better"?

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