The magnificent Sven

Emulating a local hero was hard for Kevin Fong - but fees didn't make it tougher

February 21, 2008

When I was growing up we lived in a nice street somewhere in North London. OK, the family across the road got visited by the police quite a lot, mostly in the middle of the night, apparently because of some misunderstanding about a succession of cars resting in their garage between owners; but that was standard suburban fare.

I also remember that there was a Swedish family down the road. There was Kaaren (whom I had a massive crush on) and her brother Sven. From childhood recollection, Sven was about ten feet tall with standard-issue blonde hair and blue eyes. Mostly I remember my Mum saying: "That's Sven. He went to university; he's got a degree." Which, to a young child, served to confirm what I now know to be true: that people of Scandinavian origin are really from outer space, masquerading on this Earth in unconvincing human facsimile form.

I never knew what his degree was in or where it was from, only that it conferred superhuman abilities on him and that it wouldn't be long before Klaatu Klaatu beamed him up to the mother ship. "If you work hard at school, one day you might go to university too," Mum would add, though again there was never any mention of where I might go, much less of what I might do when I got there.

At school, the theme continued. Career advice usually involved someone from the Armed Forces telling us how we could lead a life of adventure in foreign lands, meeting and shooting people of exotic culture, or an old boy who they continued to roll out because he was the assistant branch manager at a bank in the high street. For completeness they would always tag a slide in with an arrow pointing from school to sixth-form college and another pointing from there to university - kind of like a road sign in Adelaide pointing vaguely towards London, telling you only that it's a long way away without any clear indication of how to get there.

And so there it was: "University", a far-off mythical place where anything was possible - situated, as far as I could tell, somewhere north of Atlantis.

Clearly, even in the 1980s, there were huge social and cultural barriers to making the leap from an average comprehensive to higher education, and today's administration should be commended for breaking those obstacles down. This month we heard that Universities and Colleges Admissions Service application numbers are up again. University is finally something that people from a much wider background aspire to. And, yes, it may in some way devalue that currency, but it is a currency that vast swaths of society previously never had any real chance of getting their hands on - devalued or otherwise.

But having achieved all of that, I think there's a danger of spoiling things with uncapped tuition fees. Having demystified the university experience sufficiently to make it seem within the reach of a wider audience, we're in the process of erecting a new set of fences - this time financial.

I recognise the need to find alternative funding solutions that will allow British universities to expand, develop and hold their own on the global stage. I accept that tuition fees are to some degree a necessary evil. However, it seems to me that we are still lodged firmly in the opening phase of this particular social experiment and we have yet to fully understand the effects it might have on social mobility, the aspirations of today's schoolchildren and their attitudes to higher education.

I fear that to uncap tuition fees now would be to turn the full aggression of market forces on a system that is not ready for it. Take it from me, a sometime employee of the National Health Service, when I warn you of the potential dangers of going down that path.

So I suggest that universities should do what universities do best: gather data, take stock and analyse the outcomes objectively and honestly, ignoring as far as possible the Photoshop-like effects of political interest and agendas.

For me, a teenager of the Eighties, trying to follow in the footsteps of local hero Sven wasn't all that straightforward. Emerging from a comprehensive that looked and felt very much like Grange Hill (without the pre-watershed restrictions on language and depiction of violence) and from a family that had little understanding of the British system of higher education, the options and their likely implications were truly bewildering. My choice of course and university were happy accidents and I feel very grateful that when I was trying to decide where to go, the waters were not further muddied by how much they were charging.

Having placed in people's minds the idea that university should be accessible to everyone, introducing an uncapped tuition fee system, making the very best products in that brave new market contingent not only on academic ability but also on ability to pay, seems a backward step and certainly one that we should not rush to make.

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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