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The blame for tuition fees can be laid at the feet of Tony Blair

After Labour leader Ed Miliband announced that university tuition fees would be cut from £9,000 per year to £6,000 if his party wins May’s general election, many students will be rejoicing.

The work of those nasty Tories who trebled tuition fees with the help of their turncoat liberal sidekicks will be tempered and millions of young people will be better off.

Yet this perception is not grounded in reality.

On the one hand Miliband’s proposal has been dismissed as a piece of populist gimmickry that will a £10bn black hole in university revenues.

On the other, those opposed to the current policy need to face the fact that the current fee regime has been fair to students; you only start paying the loan back when you are earning over £21,000 and any debt that remains after 30 years is written off entirely. 

It is also crucial to recognise that current fees are entirely necessary given the massively inflated university population and the state of the nation’s finances.

Indeed, it seems as though this policy announcement has a lot to do with the vast student electorate that is up for grabs after they were so stung by Nick Clegg and his promise not to raise fees.

Yet it is rather ironic that it is the fault of the Labour party and not the current government that the higher education system is in such a mess.

In fact, the finger can be pointed directly at that titan of the centre ground that is Tony Blair.

He strode to power in 1997 amidst waves of optimism, shouting his mantra of “Education, Education, Education,” which included the headline-grabbing 50% target for university participation amongst young adults.     

Given that this figure is near to being achieved, you might wonder why I have singled out Blair’s policy for criticism.

Firstly, because so many people are going to university, we now have a huge lack of people training in skilled professions that pay well, such as plumbing and carpentry.

In addition, not enough young people are embarking on technical apprenticeships because of the societal pressure to go into higher education; leaving a massive skills shortage in vital areas of manufacturing.

Alan Smithers – one of Britain’s leading voices on education – highlighted another point, elucidating the link between Blair’s education policy and tuition fees, “the expansion of higher education and the introduction of tuition fees are not unconnected – the growth could not be afforded out of taxes. 

Blair’s emphasis on university education further undermined the ladders from school into work which were already shaky.”

Indeed, the massive expansion of university places has generated a culture where those who don’t go to university are considered the odd ones out.

University used to be about furthering your knowledge and education because you had the ability and a genuine interest in your subject of choice. Now, many people go because their friends are going and because they want to ‘have fun’.

If they had chosen to go straight into work after leaving school, like the majority of people used to do, there is a good chance that three years in the same job would have brought them promotion and a salary increase; rather than starting at the bottom of the same ladder with £40,000 of debt and a mediocre degree in a soft subject that will bring little, if any, advantage.

The saddest thing about this whole mess is that successive governments will not do anything about it.

It is too politically toxic for politicians to say that there are too many people going to university.

Instead, the unsustainable increase in the numbers of people going into higher education will only further contribute to grade inflation – where you now need a good degree for a job that you would have previously got with good A-levels.

“If I had to characterise the Blair government’s approach to education,” says Professor Smithers, “I would say it has desperately wanted to be seen to be doing good things.” The ultimate consequences of this approach will continue to be felt by successive generations, but given that the figures look good on paper, Blair will not bat an eyelid.

Harry Howard

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