The first few weeks of 2004 has seen some of the fiercest arguments among parliamentarians in the House of Commons for a long time. Sadly it was about access to higher education in England and Wales.
Our education system is again at a crossroads. Many lecturers, leaders of the teaching unions, educationalists and politicians have spent the last four decades failing to find a formula to allow our education system to achieve the highest standards and once again be the envy of the world.
As part of my 2003 Annual Report which was sent to all my constituents last autumn, I conducted a survey about tuition fees. More than 600 local folk replied with 64% believing that tuition fees should be scrapped, 23% favouring their introduction and 13% said that they didn’t know.
Many constituents took the opportunity to add notes, some rather forcefully opposing the notion of tuition fees in the strongest terms, others believing that this nation must make its students pay for their higher education if we are to maintain this country’s standards of academic achievement. With the government now publishing their Bill on Higher Education my mailbag has been full with pleas and counter pleas regarding the proposals contained to create variable tuition fees. The more I read these letters and listened to parliamentarians the clearer it has become that the politics of envy still exists.
Outside of people within the top universities few correspondents have ever broached the need for this country to fight aggressively for a solution which will continue the highest level of academic development in England. Much on the other hand has been said and written claiming that everybody has the right to a free education.
As someone who went through a series of schools in different parts of the world during my early years followed by state school education in Reading which led onto free entrance into Oxford University I believe I had a marvellous education but not one that could be considered privileged.
It is noticeable amongst my grammar school colleagues here in the House of Commons that we all would have liked our schools to have been retained because it was a proven way to help children to fulfil their maximum academic potential in an environment without their parents having to pay.
Unfortunately during the 1960’s and 1970’s teaching unions with their mistaken enforcement of national pay bargaining and desire to level standards down to the lowest common denominator were hostile to excellence at the expense of equality. Instead educationalists preferred a system of comprehensive, secondary education with little room for aspirational parents and their bright children.
This, I believe, has led to today’s envy. The use of private education has soared because parents have failed to find good quality academic schools locally for their children. The small number of free selective schools has creamed off the most highly talented young people in a larger catchment area because parents have often been prepared to drive their children for miles to make sure they enjoyed a highly-disciplined and academic education amongst similarly capable children. In many cases parents have bought homes in top school catchment areas to be near to the best schools.
As the standards of exam testing have fallen so has risen the number of young people who have achieved top marks at "A" level. This has made many more youngsters capable of applying for our very best universities. Many have been disappointed and much has been made of the fact that the level of privately educated children compared to those from State schools who go to Oxbridge and other top universities, in the view of those who crave equality, is unacceptably high. The answer according to many who still want an "equalised" society is to push up the State intake and hang the consequences to England’s academic institutions.
The funding for higher education has now to be split across many more universities and we face the problem that our greatest learning institutions have a funding crisis. The answer that is suggested is for all new students to pay tuition fees. One clear problem is that those from lower income families will blanch at the prospect of building up greater debts than simple student fees and so will eschew any interest in going to our most senior universities. That loss is a loss for our entire nation.
Our most talented young people must have the opportunity to go to our best universities. But it is also clear that many of our most-talented students come from the stronger academic secondary institutions in private education. Parents have put their money into their gifted child’s education by choice and these children are often pushed much harder academically than children at State schools. This rigour at private schools makes students much readier to embrace the exacting regime at many of our best academic institutions.
I fear that the same kind of people who robbed this country of a high quality free secondary education system now wish to level standards in all our universities down into mediocrity. We can see that students here and all round the world will vote with their feet by paying to go to the best available colleges for their further education many of which will be overseas.