Tuition fees are not the end of the story

July 25, 1997

In 1984, when the National Union of Students presented its annual grant claim to the minister for higher education, I learnt the best political lesson of my life.

As leader of the delegation, backed by elected officials and some of the best young policy brains around, I was in full flow: "Students could not afford their basic needs, parents were not paying or could not pay their contribution and all of this was a preparation for cutting student numbers."

"Stop right there." The minister, Peter Brooke, genial MP for Westminster and City, was having none of this. "The problem with you lefties", he said, in his best avuncular voice, "is that you all believe in conspiracy theory."

There followed a long pause: "Come to think of it, the problem with my lot is that they all believe in the cock-up theory. The truth is, of course we conspire and then we cock up." Thus is history written.

This week the new Government faces one of its trickiest tests. The issue of tuition fees thwarted even Sir Keith Joseph, then Mr Brooke's boss at the Department of Education, and Margaret Thatcher. In 1984 their attempt to introduce fees, for ideological reasons, backfired with a huge upswell of anger from students and a backbench revolt by Conservative MPs.

Sir Keith backed down and the fees proposals were dropped.

The conspiracy on student numbers and financing was straightforward. Learning from the United States, Sir Keith saw his changes to student support as a fundamental attack on the dependency culture. Students should stand on their own two feet, learn the value of the work ethic and be grateful for their opportunities.

His objective was to change attitudes. Graduates who had to scrimp and save through college would be good entrepreneurs and loyal Tory voters in the future.

It never occurred to him that students would get their revenge.

Sir Keith faced the problem of population projections. The true, conventional, wisdom was that the number of 18-year-olds was set to drop dramatically throughout the 1990s. This, it was predicted, would have hugely beneficial results for the Government. Lower youth unemployment, less pressure on the training providers and less pressure on the colleges. However, as the civil servants told us, the figures masked the real problem. Although the total number of 18-year-olds fell, the number of middle-class A-level gainers grew.

Sir Keith could not face elections with thousands of angry parents whose offspring had gained the requisite two Bs and a C but had not been let into university. Thus higher education had to expand. Hence the funding crisis.

The Dearing report is itself a result of a political conspiracy. But one between political parties which did not want to face the problem before the general election. Higher education funding has been de-politicised, but the problem is the same.

The second lesson that Peter Brooke, who was in the chamber for my maiden speech, taught me was that what goes round comes round. As Kenneth Baker reveals in his political memoirs, The Turbulent Years, the fees proposals coincided with the Enfield byelection. If the then Government had pressed ahead, Michael Portillo may never have been an MP. This time round it is the Uxbridge byelection which Government managers have to grapple with.

The difference is that Dearing is not a Government proposal but the result of a consultation exercise. Which gives those opposed to fees much more time than they realise.

Phil Woolas is MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth. He was president of the National Union of Students from 1984-86.

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