Martini belt buckles: how the wealthy lost the battle against fees

The rich were once expert at getting their way, but the failure of their revolt against fees signals tough times ahead, argues George Watson

June 16, 2011

Credit: Andy Bunday

The riots against student fees last December showed the courage of defiance. After all, it was the coldest month in England since records began.

It also showed the desperation of the rich, since only they will pay. All three main political parties accept that they should pay, one way or another. The issue whether they should pay more is marginal; so is the question whether they should incur debts or taxes. All that is an effect of the remorseless growth in the popularity of higher education over the past half century.

Higher education used to be free because it was thought to be in the national interest. That is still believed, but by now so many people want it, and for so many reasons, that there is no longer any need to tempt or cajole them to come.That puts academics in the driver's seat. They were once thought as dim as the donnish characters in Evelyn Waugh's novels: now, as they select for university entrance and define the syllabus, they are seen as power brokers of consequence.

Lord Baker of Dorking, who in 1986 succeeded Sir Keith Joseph as education minister in the Thatcher government, used to say that education was unique in being the victim of "producer capture", at least as far as the syllabus was concerned. Those who offer commodities and services usually strain to give consumers what they want and at competitive prices. Educators, by contrast, offer people what is good for them. The paradox is acute in higher education, where customers are adults of voting age.

There is no escaping this paradox, and the December demonstrators presumably knew it. The brief fad for teach-ins half a century ago ended in abject failure: students cannot lecture, nor do they wish to listen to other students failing to do it. Besides, it all turned out to be an embarrassing boon to the dons, and the sight of academics gratefully retiring to their labs and libraries to get on with their own work doubled the embarrassment. It is all too easy to find people eager to be paid for not teaching.

The student demonstrators of the present age may be confidently assumed to be well off, since only they are affected by tuition fees. December 2010 saw a revolt of the rich, and their defeat is the more impressive when you consider how skilfully they once played the game of preserving free university education, and for how long.

Think back to another December, and a milder one. On 4 December 1984, at the end of Orwell Year and during the miners' strike, Sir Keith Joseph, at that point still education secretary, was savagely grilled by a parliamentary committee for suggesting that £39 million should be cut from university budgets, and more than 250 Conservative backbenchers attended a meeting to express their anger. They had been prompted by indignant constituents.

In 1985, with the support of Nigel Lawson, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Joseph dared to propose student loans and was forced by his own backbenchers to retreat. The miners' strike, meanwhile, ended in ignominious defeat. Organised labour was weak compared with a quiet word with your MP; and by then the rich, who had willingly shouldered the burden of fee-paying schools, were so used to free university education that they saw no reason to give it up. The triumph of the martini belt over the miners' lodge still echoes dimly after a quarter of a century.

The rich until recently were expert at guarding their interests. Ernest Hemingway once remarked that the rich have more money than other people, but he underrated them. They are also smarter, and they know how to hire people who are even smarter than they are. Not all of them are accountants. Graham Greene used to tell how on leaving school his headmaster-father had a timely word with an old pupil at Balliol College, Oxford, which explains how Greene was admitted to Balliol.

Those who demonstrated against tuition fees some months ago cannot reasonably complain that one of the two coalition parties had undertaken to abolish fees, since nobody can be sure whether alternative proposals such as a graduate tax would have cost students more or less than loans; and nobody can reasonably claim that student fees strike at the poor, since the poor are exempt.

All in all, it is a tough time to be rich and have more money. How much more, some may be asking, and for how much longer? The coalition has imposed the higher capital gains tax proposed by its predecessor on the realistic view that to repay the national debt you tax wealth. It is doubtful if any Labour government in memory has ever weighed as heavily on the rich. What, I wonder, would Hemingway find to say about that?

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