It's not ability holding Mary back in 2013

26th November 2010 at 00:00

Poor Mary. She's poor in more ways than one. First off, she doesn't earn a whole lot. She works full-time in a shop, taking home not much more than the minimum wage.

Mary is poor, too, because she has never been able to do what she wants to do in life. At school she was seen as bright, but when her parents split up and her mother became ill, she had to leave at 16 to start working and bringing some money into the house.

Mary has just turned 40. That doesn't make her poor, but it does make her anxious. She feels that life is passing her by, and that she really needs to do something about her unfinished education. This is partly to boost her earning power, but it's about more than that. She feels there is a whole side to her that is left unfulfilled by her job at the shop.

Mary has decided she wants to go to university. But this is where Mary is poor all over again, because the year is not 2010, but 2013, and the full effect of the coalition Government's changes to higher education funding have just kicked in.

Mary may not be well-educated, but she is not without ability. She has done her research - sitting up at nights on a computer when her shift has finished - finding out the difference between how things once were for aspiring university students like her, and how they are now. So she knows there was a time when the outlook for people with similar ambitions was rather better than it is today.

Obviously, she can forget about the halcyon days when maintenance grants were available for all and it was unthinkable for students to pay fees. But only three years ago, she's aware, fees were capped at just over #163;3,000 per year and that the most prestigious universities were no more expensive than the least.

Mary's interest is in social history - it's what she wants to study at university - so she knows plenty about the long struggle to give people from poorer backgrounds the chance to study for a degree. She has seen in the books she reads and on the TV documentaries she so avidly consumes how "working class" education progressed through the Education Acts of the 19th and 20th centuries.

She knows all about the mechanics' institutes, the Workers' Educational Association and the post-war generation, nurtured by free orange juice and grammar and comprehensive school education, who proudly proclaimed themselves to be the first in their family ever to go to university.

More recently, she saw how their children were able to avail of opportunities at "top" universities at no greater cost than less prestigious institutions. And how all this time the proportion of the population able to study for a degree was growing, until it peaked in 2010 at about 40 per cent.

But how things have changed. Even those universities the papers are starting to call "bargain basement" are now asking for #163;5,000 a year in tuition fees. If Mary wanted to try for Oxbridge or one of the other top colleges, that would rise to #163;9,000. Add to that the loan for her year-on-year maintenance costs, and she calculates she'll graduate with a bill of at least #163;45,000 - a daunting sum for a 43-year-old to face paying back. Yes, she's heard that there are bursaries promised for the "deserving poor", but she suspects these will mean no more than cherry-picking the brightest from the poorest postcodes.

And the bad news doesn't end there. Just in case she thought she'd take the gamble anyway, some bright spark back in 2010 came up with the idea of charging her full fees for the access course in an FE college she'll need to take to get into university in the first place.

So poor Mary. It looks as if she will be stuck in her shop for some time to come. And it probably won't be much of a consolation to her either that there will be a lot of other potential Marys in exactly the same position.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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