Taking my oldest granddaughter to a show with her mum last night brought home to me that in seven years' time she will be applying to University and will face very high fees (unless current policy proposals are reversed or modified substantially).
On Tuesday when I accepted a lifetime achievement award, I noted in my acceptance remarks that my father had been a manual worker and that the 1944 Education Act and state grants had made it possible to be the first person on either side of my family to go to university (Lord Kinnock was in the audience and made similar comments many years ago).
My uncle, an intelligent and cultivated man, had started a course at Woolwich Polytechnic (now Greenwich University) but was called back to the family business which was his parents' livelihood. As he told me towards the end of his life, he had spent it 'chained to the shop counter'.
It should be noted, however, that when I went to university the percentage of the age cohort attending was much smaller and hence the costs to the public purse were proportionately lower. I am sometimes asked what percentage of the population should go to university. I don't think that there is any methodology which could give a definitive answer in terms of labour market needs. Saying 'anyone who is capable' just deflects the question on to a definition of capability.
We are making a very sudden switch to an essentially American system of higher education in terms of funding arrangements. Having a taught in an American university, my impression is that arrangements for the less well off are quite robust. Otherwise you have to start saving, as American friends have done, when a child is born.
Clearly higher education brings benefit to an individual and they should make a contribution. But there is also benefit to society as a whole, even from the humanities and social studies which have been hit particularly hard by the removal of their publicly funded teaching grants.
Quite what the split of benefits is cannot be easily quantified. I have seen attempts to do this, but I am not that impressed and I don't think a minister would be. At the end of the day it is a political judgement.
The Coalition Government's proposals will hit 'middle England', those who are not rich but earn somewhat more than the median income. They are also taking hits through the tax and benefit system. They are quite an important group of voters who are capable of switching their vote.
The Lib Dems have clearly suffered considerable damage to their credibility. They must surely have realised that a pledge not to increase fees at all and to try and abolish them was not credible in the current fiscal context. Really it was an opportunistic ploy to win votes by a party that had not had the responsibility of governing for a long time. Now they are paying a political price.
I would not expect the Government to be defeated in the Commons, although they might encounter more trouble in the Lords. Street protests won't deflect them: the analogy with the poll tax is wrong in all sorts of ways, not least that opinion on this issue is more divided and not everyone is affected adversely.
It is often argued that higher education should be free but that means that taxpayers who do not directly benefit have to contribute towards those who do. I heard a NUS spokesman arguing that corporation tax should be put up and the rich taxed more heavily. That would do wonders for the economy, particularly the former, as both firms and rich individuals are mobile. Some firms have already move office operations to Ireland where corporation tax is 12.5 per cent.
These proposals will place a heavy burden on the already over stretched bank of mum and dad. Those who go on to earn incomes above the pay back minimum of £21,000 a year, but not that much more (e.g., teachers, health service auxillary professions), will be hit hard and will find it even more difficult to eventually buy their own home. Those in financial services should be able to pay back loans without too much pain. There is also a great risk that much of the money will not be recovered.
What one could credibly argue for is (i) that the new arrangements should be phased in rather than being introduced in one fell swoop which is already affecting next year's admissions and (ii) one could question whether such a large increase is necessary if there is some social benefit (which would be met by retaining more of the teaching grant). But then the issue would be where the teaching grant that was not cut would come from.
However, given the fiscal context, I doubt whether the Coalition Government will give too much ground. They know the measures are not popular, but they want to get the bad news out of the way quickly, although the effects will continue to be felt.