Following the announcement that middle and higher earners will have their child benefit taken away from 2013 there has been much talk of the legitimacy of Universal benefits at a time when government are trying to dramatically reduce the cost of the welfare state. My wife and I are in a fortunate enough position that the loss of £20 per week will not have a significant impact on our lives, though I know of others where it will. The question of Universality however also has resonance in one of the other big stories of the week – the likely doubling of tuition fees and the creation of a market within Higher Education.
Lord Browne’s long-awaited report was released this morning, delivering everything that was feared by progressives – no cap on fees and the introduction of a market in both Universities and the courses they offer. True, there were some crumbs on the table for potential students with increased support for living costs and the threshold for paying back increased to £21,000 but this marks a watershed in Higher Education. Assuming the proposals are implemented this is the end of any progress towards a needs-blind meritocracy, ushering in a time where all but the wealthiest have to balance fulfilling their academic potential with the cost of their chosen course and institution.
Lord Browne made much of the fact that University is a significant investment for young people with potentially enormous rewards, which is true up to a point. What he didn’t mention is that for every student that graduates there is also a knock-on benefit for society. Whether it be a new doctor, teacher, accountant or, dare I say it, banker; whether through service to the public sector or through wealth creation there is a clear benefit to both individual and state. The case for me is clear – more graduates = a better skilled workforce = a more affluent and able country. This is the reason I think Lord Browne is wrong and any measure that creates barriers to talented young people entering higher education is bad for the country.
There will be a lot of people entering the debate over the next few days and weeks, most of whom benefited from free university places themselves, saying we have no choice but to accept these proposals, that to use general taxation to fund higher education is just no an option. I don’t accept the argument at all in fact I believe that we can’t afford not to. This generation of young people have an absolute right to fulfil their potential and it is our job to support them in doing that.