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The sting in the tail of student life

The days of the carefree student are well and truly over. How many university hopefuls of the Sixties, Seventies, or even the early Eighties would have interrupted dreams of parties, sex and the nature of existence to consider how the campus of their choice was managing on its budget, or be able to contribute authoritatively to a discussion on the future funding of higher education?

Today's sixth-formers can and do. The university vice-chancellors' threat to impose a Pounds 300 entrance fee has sent shock waves back into schools, and the prospective students from Langley Park Girls' and Boys' schools in the London suburb of Bromley have been paying attention to the arguments. Four out of 18 sixth-formers interviewed said that they would not be going to university if the levy was activated, but only a minority interpreted the proposal as an attack on students rather than the Government.

Lara Killick, who at the age of 16 had already decided she was joining the police after graduation, thought that the levy proposal would force the Government into action: "They should introduce a long-term loan scheme, but they should choose one that has already been shown to work, such as the Australian scheme."

This scheme, a form of graduate tax, is the one favoured by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals. Lara's view was fairly typical of the girls, though some objected that universities should not be using students to threaten the Government. Of eight girls, only one put up a passionate argument for free higher education.

The boys were more forthright in condemning the levy - "they cannot be serious" - but nine out of 10 appreciated that somebody would have to pay for the higher education explosion and accepted that graduates should bear some of the burden.

All the pupils were, understandably, less exercised by new loan schemes than with the immediate prospect of student poverty and starting their working lives in hock to the Government. All had a rich supply of horrific anecdotes about acquaintances leaving university with Fergie-sized overdrafts and scurvy brought on by a diet of porridge and beans.

But, for most, the bleak prospect was not enough to shake their determination to get to university. The perceived alternative - long-term unemployment -was worse.

Most of these young people were born in the year Margaret Thatcher came to power and their attitudes echo the changes that have taken place in higher education and the economy over the past 17 years. They are typical of a new breed of entrant into higher education. Of 18 pupils, only two had parents who had been to university. Bromley is a moderately affluent suburb whose essential characteristics are replicated in thousands of similar suburbs all over Britain. The Langley Park pupils are the sons and daughters of self-employed businessmen, caterers, police officers, shopkeepers, funeral directors, builders, and bankers - people who, as headteacher Roger Sheffield confirms, made money in the 1980s only to be hit hard by the recession.

"Back in 1990, 16-year-olds here would ask 'How can I get a job with a Porsche?' The recession helped in my drive to expand the sixth form. When I arrived, there was no higher education ethos here - they would drift through the sixth, confident that a job in the city awaited them at 18. Recession is a powerful motivator for higher education."

Numbers of boys going into HE has jumped from 35 per cent of the sixth to 77 per cent since 1990. This is mirrored in the girls' school which has seen growth in university entrance of 25 per cent.

But it is still very difficult, says Roger Sheffield, to persuade the pupils of the intrinsic value of doing a degree: "They think in vocational terms; it's partly the culture of the area - you get up and do."

With parents anxious to see them move further up the social ladder, the Langley Park pupils see the possession of a degree as a basic necessity in an increasingly ruthless job market. "A degree is now essential" said Luke Phillips.

The girls went further: "There isn't really a choice any more," said Jackie Herbert, "employers are not going to look at people who just have A-levels". The others agreed: "University is a sort of security." Years out spent backpacking around the world are out of fashion in Bromley. Pupils seemed keenly aware of their parents' financial worries and did not want to add to them.

Also remarkable was the undisguised contempt these pupils had for the new universities - the former polys. "Most people would rather be safe than take a leap of faith," said Matthew Cherry. Luke Phillips agreed: "If I chose Liverpool John Moores over the University of Liverpool, employers would wonder why."

These attitudes had obviously been absorbed at least in part from the headteacher, who has uncompromising views about the former polys. "A 2. 1 from Birmingham is supposed to be the same as a 2.1 from Oxford Brookes or Middlesex, but I don't know anyone in education who believes it ."

But won't time wash away the second-class stigma carried by the former polys?

"Not under the current funding arrangements - they have every incentive to take just anybody to make up numbers."

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