Degrees for the rich - a Labour betrayal

31st January 2003 at 00:00
Like many in further education - and indeed teaching generally - mine was the first generation of my family to go anywhere near university. You might say it was what made us: first we went to a grammar or comprehensive school, then, aided by what seemed like a miserly grant, on to a degree at one of Britain's burgeoning universities.

For my own two children, studying for a BA and an MSc respectively, university is a a natural choice. But for my grandparents, things were very different. On my father's side the family business was carried on with a pick and shovel, moving round the country with the work, living in what were euphemistically called "hutments", helping to build reservoirs and install sewerage systems.

My grandparents were keen that my father and uncle should learn what they called "a trade". That would lead to social advancement and obviate the need to tramp round the country after work every couple of years.

My mother's grandfather was a labourer in rural Cambridgeshire. His sons largely followed in father's footsteps, while his daughters did what girls of their station were expected to: domestic service; shopwork; working the land. In fact one of them, my Great Aunt Gladys, used to travel to Cambridge every day to clean at Newnham College. So one of my family at least did "go to university" after a fashion!

Like my father, my mother too wanted something better than her parents had.

She stayed on at school beyond the leaving age of 14 and then went into a clerical job with the Post Office.

My elder brother, a baby boomer of the Second World War variety, passed the 11-plus and went to the local grammar school. When at 18 he won a place to study languages at Cardiff University, the wider family realised that an event of some magnitude had happened. He was instantly dubbed "The Professor" and everyone (everyone bar me that is) began to listen more carefully to what he had to say.

When my turn came, it wasn't quite so easy. I made it to the grammar school, but they quickly had me categorised as being "not academic".

Personally I like to think of myself as more of a late starter. In those days too, you had to jump through all sorts of antediluvian hoops to study for a degree, such as passing an O-level in Latin in order to study literature written in English.

Ultimately I did make it - still without a dead language to my name - but not until I was well into my twenties. Keenly aware of the pecking order of universities, I considered myself too lowly to try for Oxbridge, and settled for redbrick instead.

And so we come to the latest crop of Jones scholars. For them university is no big deal. And unlike their humble father they see no reason to restrict themselves in the choices they make: my son is studying for his MSc at Warwick's prestigious Business School, while my daughter is in the third year of her English degree at Cambridge.

In case you're wondering, there is more to this than just my chance to play the proud father. Because, by one of those little ironies of history, the Cambridge college that accepted my daughter, was the same one that her great, great aunt used to get up at dawn to clean around the time of the Great War.

All right, so it had taken four generations to come to fruition, but there it was, social mobility writ large: the transformation via publicly-funded education from someone who "does" to someone who has it "done" for them!

As a teacher, even if I had wanted it, I couldn't have afforded for my children to be educated privately. But when it came to choosing a university, for the first time in their lives they could compete with the old Etonians on a level (well, level-ish) playing field.

Now let us consider what's likely to happen under the blueprint for higher education funding revealed by the Government last week. Although for the moment tuition charges are to be capped at pound;3,000 per year, the principle has been well and truly established: places in the British "Ivy League" are once again to become the preserve of the moneyed classes.

Yes, there is the rhetoric of social inclusion and the window-dressing of grants and incentives for the "disadvantaged". But it's there for all who care to see it, that from now on it's a case of getting what you pay for rather than what you deserve in higher education.

Can it really be that the People's Party is prepared to turn its back on 100 years of progress towards educational equality? A progress that many of them have so prominently shared in themselves. Sadly, for some in the governing echelons of New Labour the answer to that question is a resounding "yes".

Stephen Jones lectures at a south London college

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