Give the socially useful a break

24th January 2003 at 00:00
THE murmurs about university funding were delivered to us last week in the shape of a huge, trembling toe stuck covertly into the water to see how many sharks and electric eels it attracted. It is very exciting, after this long wait, to have a clue what they are planning. But by the time you read this there will have been ample chewing-over of the student questions of top-up and upfront, retro-tax and debt collection and whether it is philosophically acceptable to charge a kid more for Cambridge tutorials than for scrappy supervisions once a fortnight and lecture-rooms with broken chairs at the University of Gawdelpus.

However, the real lift of the heart was the fleeting suggestion that graduates who work in the public sector for a certain (indeterminate) period might not have to pay back a bean of their student loan. This is a tub I have been thumping for years now: the notion of using remission as a dividend for social usefulness.

It would affect teachers in state schools, NHS nurses and doctors, police, anyone piling willingly into a shortage area and staying in it for, say, 10 years. Whether or not to include well-paid civil servants would be a matter for argument, and so would the thorny question of whether smug young careerist backbench MPs deserve to be counted as public servants.

But you get the idea. What attracted me so much about it was not so much the money because, in the end, every condition of a job just becomes part of the pay package. You chuck in security, holidays, pensions, non-repayment of university costs, shake it all about, and decide how much these things offset the disadvantages.

No: what was so alluring was the idea that society would be saying to certain workers "Look, it was more than worth educating you, you're essential, we're proud and pleased that you're working so directly for the public good, even though you're clever enough to earn more outside. The taxpayer thinks you are fabulous value. Respect!"

Obviously, those of us who thump such tubs become familiar with the arguments against the idea, because literate and mouthy persons with a vast supply of Basildon Bond notepaper write long, long letters explaining why you are wrong. There are two main beefs. One comes from public workers (notably teachers, actually) who say in a grumbly way that it would just be patronising, turn into an excuse for not paying them enough anyway, and - this one baffled me a bit - "interfere with their freedom to leave the profession by imposing a financial penalty for doing so". You might as well argue that a huge pay rise for teachers would penalise those who decided to stop teaching: can't have incentives without the shadow of a penalty if you don't take up the incentive, can you?

The other cross letters come from people doing other jobs - often quite low-paid - which they rightly consider to be vital to society even if the state is not their employer. This mirrors the endless arguments about who is a "key worker" and thus entitled to live in a cheap government shoe-box in central London. If nurses are vital, why not the clerks who make up nurses' pay packets? If traffic policemen deserve the nation's gratitude, why not the Capita employees who under the private finance arrangements are going to run the London congestion tax?

What about the counter staff of sandwich bars, providing the morning hit of coffee in paper cups without which none of the above would ever get to work ?

We are all intertwined, all useful, all part of the great breathing body politic. After once incautiously saying "City fat-cats definitely ought to pay back their university costs", I got a long passionate email about how the nation would collapse without our supply of honest and brilliant bankers and stock traders, who "in the last analysis do every bit as much for society as any half-baked university lecturer in Pretentiousness Studies".

Anything which formally sets different values on different people's working days is going to get up someone's nose. But I think it could be worth it.

Teachers, in particular, need recognition of their social worth. Going into teaching should once again - as in the early 20th century - be something which meets with an approving nod of respect from family and friends; having "a teacher in the family" should be something which even the ambitious, restless middle classes boast about. And because we are as we are, and money defines a lot of our attitudes, this would be assisted by an approving nod from the Treasury: "Good heavens, you are teaching the new generation; of course you needn't pay back what it cost you to study; we're only grateful for you taking the trouble". I think it would help. I hold my breath to see what becomes of the idea.

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