Not a literary thought, but then again the future of literary thinking in universities may be in for a rough passage. In this month's Standpoint Magazine, I have tried to explain the history behind the Browne Review and the current political controversy over tuition fees, whilst also suggesting that at a higher level the debate is replicating what John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century saw as the standoff between Benthamite utilitarianism and the Coleridgean idea of a state-funded "clerisy."
Here, meanwhile, is a further thought.
My father was the first person in his family to go to university. He came from what we now call the “squeezed middle.” The Bates were a family of shopkeepers until my grandfather qualified as a surveyor, thus making the shift from trade to profession. But grandpa died young, leaving my grandmother to bring up a family of five boys and a girl on a small widow’s pension, provided by the freemasons. My father was a bright boy and his school encouraged him to apply to Cambridge. He sat the examination for Emmanuel College and won a place, but couldn’t afford to take it up. In those days, some of the less prestigious colleges held their entrance examination a term later than the others, so he had a second shot, this time trying for St Catharine’s. He won an Exhibition, worth £40 a year. This time, he was able to accept, and he duly graduated in 1931 and became a schoolteacher.
When I was a student in the 1970s, Cambridge Exhibitions were still worth £40 per year, and Scholarships £60. By that time, they were almost entirely honorific (if useful for book-buying). When my father first told me that he couldn’t afford the place but was saved by the Exhibition, I naively assumed that in the late 1920s £40 must have seemed like untold riches. I was missing the point, since I lived in the golden post-war world where everyone had their university fees paid by the state, regardless of parental income. The point of an Exhibition was that you got £40 a year and a fee waiver. It was the fees, not the living costs, that stopped my father accepting his place the first time around.
The point of repeating this story now is both to remind myself that state funding for university tuition is a very recent phenomenon and to suggest that in the not so brave new world we are about to enter, a revival of Exhibitions and Scholarships for the “squeezed middle” will be necessary alongside the recently-announced bursaries and free-first-two-year places for the “deserving poor.”
But universities will face a grave difficulty: given a choice between offering places at £9000 a pop and full scholarships with no fee, they will need hefty new endowments in order to avoid the temptation to take the fee-paying students. There is, however, an obvious source of new endowment: those of us who graduated in the golden years.
In an excellent column in yesterday’s Sunday Times, Jenni Russell proposed that the people who should be helping to fill the funding gap are not tomorrow’s students but yesterday’s. We lucky ones. It has not escaped notice that one of the principal architects of the new university funding system is David Willetts, who has recently garnered so much praise for his book The Pinch, with its persuasive account of how the babyboomers are stitching up their own children … something that the new university funding policy does in spades.
But Jenni’s idea of a retrospective graduate tax will never be enacted. No government will accept the principle of retrospective taxation of this sort. And no Treasury will countenance the hypothecation of general taxation to particular causes. Besides, one of the many problems with any graduate tax, whether retrospective or prospective, is that it goes to the Treasury, not the universities. You can see the case for Jenni and me paying retrospectively for our excellent Cambridge education, but who is to know that our contribution wouldn’t be put towards a not very useful course at a not very good university?
We have to look to America for the answer, which is direct giving. I only did a year at Harvard, as a visiting graduate student, but they still chase me annually for support. The proportion of graduates who give to their universities in the USA is astonishingly high (and has only dropped a little, despite the recession), that in the UK astonishingly low. Well, not so astonishingly, because what the USA has and the UK doesn’t are serious tax breaks to support such giving.
So what about a proposed amendment to Thursday’s education debate: for every £1 that every living graduate gives to their old university, the government will – as a one-off gesture in the first year of their new funding policy – add a £2 tax deduction. Those of us who have seen our young people marching on the streets, and who are wondering how on earth our own children will get the chances we had, will, I am sure, give generously, and it will become possible for universities to be liberal with Scholarships and Exhibitions for those students from the "squeezed middle" who, in terms of academic potential, most deserve a university education.