Money, money makes Labour's world go round

February 8, 2002

First university fees, next school and hospital fees? Tony Benn asks how much more Labour will make us pay for.

One option is conspicuously lacking from the government's highly publicised review of student finance - the basic case for free higher education.

There are many reasons why the government should abandon tuition fees and loans to cover the cost of a university education.

Fees force those who want to go on to higher education into debt. The latest published figures show how those debt levels have risen. They represent a burden that no young person should be asked to carry as a penalty for wanting to continue their education. There is no doubt it has discouraged some from doing so.

Take the hypothetical case of two students who, on completing their degree course and deciding to get married, take out a mortgage and raise a family. They could well find themselves up to £60,000 in debt when only one of them is available for work, even if a well-paid job could be found.

Anyone in work with that load to carry would be careful not to alienate his or her employer for fear of being thrown on the dole and unable to pay the mortgage - a cheap way to preserve a passive, uncomplaining workforce.

The provisions for repayment amount to the imposition of a means test, requiring the applicant for relief to disclose their entire financial circumstances before they can have their payments deferred.

Taxing the educated, instead of the rich, favours those who may have got wealthy by jumping into a well-paid job above those who deferred their earning capacity for three or four years to prepare themselves for responsible work. Those who take on post-compulsory education have, in effect, sacrificed their earning power during the years that they were at college and fail to receive the credit they deserve.

Present policy wrongly assumes that the only beneficiaries of higher education are graduates. But what about the community that relies on their skills? Everyone who consults a doctor gains directly from the immense medical knowledge acquired during their training - but it is the doctor alone who might have to pay some form of graduate tax for the privilege.

The whole idea is grotesque. It compares very badly with the generosity in provision for those, including myself, who, because of wartime service, were helped through college at a time when Britain was virtually bankrupt.

The problem today is not a shortage of money but a shortage of will. Underlying that is a barely concealed dislike, even fear, of the idea of mass higher education held by some elitist Oxbridge academics or rightwing journalists, who seem to believe that by "encouraging the natives to get uppity", as the old Colonial Service might have put it, standards will fall and the newly enlightened masses will cause trouble.

But the dangers go much deeper. For if it is considered right to ask students to pay for their college courses, it may not be long before fees and loans are proposed for schools, with generous repayment schemes to make them acceptable. I can envisage a time when we might hear that hospital treatment should be funded in the same way, combined with a ministerial pledge that poor patients will not be humiliated by having to disclose their personal finances when claiming relief on their debt repayment.

The real reason for this policy is to be found in the mass of privatisation schemes now being launched that will effectively destroy our public services.

Cutting back on Treasury funding for hospitals, pensions, schools and universities is, in effect, an attack on democracy. Commitments under the Maastricht treaty require us, if we want to adopt the euro, to limit our public expenditure so severely that our public services cannot be adequately funded out of taxation. The central bankers, in Frankfurt, are telling the electors in every country in Europe that, whoever we may choose to elect, we are not allowed, by European Union law, to provide the public services that we think are necessary.

In parallel, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation are applying ever more pressure to force us to privatise all our services, to make them available only to those who can afford to pay or are ready to sink into debt.

The government is very foolish to go along that road: all students have parents and they too are worried about their children now at college. A large number of voters will have been touched by this attack on free higher education by the next general election and their experiences could undoubtedly influence their vote.

So we should back students in their campaigns for a more equitable method of financial support, and in turn ask them to back others who are also suffering from this obscene worship of money and market forces, that is now the most powerful fundamentalist religion in the world.

Tony Benn was MP for Chesterfield until the 2001 general election.

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