Home > Politics > Higher education funding reform is emotional for its opponents and for the ‘guilty generation’ who feel compelled to enforce it

Higher education funding reform is emotional for its opponents and for the ‘guilty generation’ who feel compelled to enforce it

As little as thirteen years ago, nobody paid a penny.

That’s why further increases to the cost of university education, proposed in the Browne Review, are so difficult for people to stomach.

Before 1998, generations of decent-brained, perhaps aspirational people had breezed into universities up and down the country, paying for nothing along the way. Now these people are telling students to cough up for it, and they know how bad that looks.

Just as it is now mountainously daunting for young professionals to know they will work into their seventies in order to support their innumerable aged, so it is for young students to take on the burden of around £40,000 of debt for the privilege of degree study.

The extraordinary good fortune of the baby boom generation, who were the key beneficiaries of free access to higher education (along with several other pertinent points) is detailed expertly by David Willetts – now universities minister – in his book, The Pinch.

It is not for recent or future generations of students to resent their forebears for being so fortunate. But at a certain point it became clear that it wouldn’t be possible to sustain higher education without reform of the generous grants system – no matter how ingrained were its principles in the consciences of decision makers.

These decision makers, and their commentators, the opinion-makers, are the people who benefited from a free university education. When the Commons was threatening to revolt against Blair’s top-up fees bill in 2004, those men and women were acting according to something visceral and something elemental within them. To them, free university education had been a norm, a birthright, a part of their identity.  To move the country yet further away from it was, and remains, heartbreaking.

So the governing generation feel extremely guilty. Their quandary is rather like the life of Vince Cable in the current coalition: desperately not wanting to do something out of long-held belief and principle, but feeling that there is no choice but to do it, for to not do it would be to deny the problem. Meanwhile everyone else is shocked, concerned or angry. Opposition to, and anguish over increases in the cost of university is not only based on a practical assessment of the impending strife. It is also a complex emotional reaction.

The process of review and outrage and debate and outrage is not just a recognition that going to university now requires an eye-watering financial commitment. It is also part of a realisation about the extent to which a generation’s worth of certainties, securities, even sensibilities, are dying.

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