Where will this betrayal end, Mr Conscience?

28th January 2011 at 00:00

Oh, Simon Hughes, what have you done? Turning yourself into a sort of educational used-car salesman - and you won't receive a penny for it either.

When you accepted the unpaid job of advocate for access to education you said you expected flak, and got it. Dummy, dupe, Simple Simon, window dresser and smoke-screen artist are some of the more polite names I've come across. The National Union of Students described your efforts as "a tiny plaster over a gaping wound", while Laurie Penny in the New Statesman preferred "an Avon lady for Thatcherite university reform".

Part of the problem, of course, is your reputation as the Mr Nice Guy of politics; the man with a conscience, seen agonising on prime-time telly over whether to vote for or against the massive tuition fee increase that the coalition Government you support was bringing in. You opted for abstention, which some labelled a cop-out, but which others thought was a perfectly honourable thing to do for a man faced with a tricky dilemma.

Once that decision had been taken, you declared that your mission was "to ensure that every potential student has access to all the facts about the costs, benefits and opportunities of further and higher education". In other words, the dirty deed was done, but you didn't want disadvantaged young people missing out on what opportunities there were for lack of accurate information. So over the next few months we can expect to see you in colleges and sixth-forms, telling students not to despair and that higher education is still a viable option for all.

And in a way, isn't that what teachers like me up and down the country are already doing? Trying to counter those who would make the awful things your Government has done seem yet more awful still. It's certainly necessary. Half the students think they have got to stump up the money up front. Nor do they realise they won't pay back a thing until their earnings hit pound;21,000. Think of it like a tax, I tell them, an extra tax for being a graduate. You can't avoid it, and it's still better than not getting a degree at all.

But hold on a moment, Simon. It's hard enough to have to tell students that they must come out of university with a debt of anything up to pound;50,000 when you and I got it for free. Didn't that high-minded mission statement of yours mention further as well as higher education? Man of conscience that you are, can you really sell what the Government is planning to do to the punters?

There are already signs of FE students dropping out or choosing not to opt in. After 20 years of involvement in access courses, for instance, I have never known so few coming forward for interview as at present.

And can you really - man of conscience - "sell" the loss of the education maintenance allowance and the adult learning grant, the twin lifelines of educational support for disadvantaged teenagers and adults? Are you really prepared to help twist the cuts knife so much further into the battered and bleeding corpse of adult aspiration by "selling" the end of level 2 entitlement and the charging of full fees - some pound;3,000 plus per year - to adults who want to take A-levels or their equivalent?

And when those on "inactive" benefits - the poor, the sick, the single mothers - are told a year or two down the line that they will no longer get the courses that may change their lives for a nominal fee, but instead will have to take out loans, will you sell that, too?

Will there come a point where you say, this far and no further? The only alternative will be to sign up for the vacuous optimism of FE minister John Hayes, who, last autumn, told FE Focus: "I think we can maintain high levels of participation. I'm not pessimistic about participation. I'm optimistic."

No doubt the captain of the Titanic said something similar about the chances of not encountering an iceberg.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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