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Lancaster University campus’s less than modest capacity for advertising space was, in the lead up to the local elections, wallpapered with posters rooting for the red team. As you’d expect, student interests were at the heart of them, and they outlined how the Conservative Party trebled tuition fees, and how the Liberal Democrats went against their promise to do away with them completely. By that logic, the Labour Party’s box is the one the students should cross, because Labour’s backside is without smear or smudge of sophism toward students.
I voted Labour based on social policy and their inclination to build crutches for the poor amongst us. But “A Vote For Students”? A student feather in Labour’s cap, and I shall not deny it’s a very peacock like feather, is the introduction of EMA – Funding less well off students so that they needn’t dent the finances of their parents to buy books, bus passes and whatever other apparatus that may help. Like anything that is available to a human, it was exploited by people who turned up at college, did little else other than be there and reaped at the end of the fortnight. Kindness is exploited, and there’s little anyone can do about it.
But EMA is a mere mouse to the elephant in the red room – Labour introduced tuition fees in 1998. They themselves trebled them in 2004. Undoubtedly, £1000 and £3,290 is less than £9000, but what does that reduce the persuasion to vote Labour to? Under the Labour government, education fees were extortionate, but it’s daylight robbery now that the Tories are in power isn’t it, so shall we go back to just being extortionate?
Of course, fees were introduced in the interest of fairness – More people should be able to get a University education, but the grant system wouldn’t cover a higher-education free-for-all, so it became a debt that graduates would have to pay back with the fees that their nice graduate jobs would cover. For that reason, Livingston wasn’t right to accuse ministers of “whipping away a ladder of opportunity which they themselves had climbed”, since they initially propped up more ladders. The problem is, it set schools off their previous path of nurturing their very best students to go to University, and started a big competition – now that there are hundreds of thousands of places open, it became a contest to see how many of their students they could send off, because that’ll look good on a league table. University began to be presented as the only career ladder there was, and my Sixth Form directors never once suggested that apprenticeships, college or the learning of a craft might be a better choice for the less academically inclined. Everyone had to go to University. Why? Because you need grades, and a school looks good if it appears to have delivered a hell of a lot of them.
There are craftsmen, businessmen, artists and grafters who never once set foot in a lecture theatre. Just how many of these people are we risking the loss of if we put them in an institute totally unsuited to the course they could end up taking? It’s fairer to allow millions of people the chance to go to University, but impracticably so, akin to allowing a limbless man to operate a Howitzer.
Universities and schools started scratching each other’s backs. A school looks like it has a lot of intellectual powerhouses steamrollering their way into Universities, which are simply glad of the money and will take them in with three E grades. This happened when the grant system was in operation, but in those days you could base a decision on a candidate’s character. Now that it’s competitive, good Universities can no longer spend the time to focus on individuals, and largely reserve judgement of a candidate solely on their high scores.
In an effort to make University less competitive by increasing the number of places and courses, Labour, wittingly or unwittingly, heightened the number of applicants and instigated competition between schools to see how many students they could cart off to University, and it’s all a mighty mess.
I like Labour, but like the Lib Dems, they screwed up. Why does Labour not invoke similar levels of ire for flicking the first domino?