Destroying the ambition of youth

From: Paul Blomfield

Labour MP for Sheffield Central

Last Wednesday I joined students from Sheffield’s two great universities, and from across the country, in their protest against the Tory-Lib Dem Government’s plans to triple university fees to £9000 a year.

These plans will have a devastating effect on who goes to university, where they study and what course they select. The prospect of graduating from a three-year course with a debt of £50,000 from fees and maintenance will destroy the ambitions of many young people across Sheffield.

The new variation in fee levels is designed to create a market in which the top universities will charge the highest fees. This will leave many students, from lower and middle income families choosing their courses on their ability to pay and not their ability to learn.

These new fees will not provide any extra money for higher education. Public funding is simply being replaced with the contributions of students themselves, as the state pulls back from any responsibility for most university teaching. Indeed all public funding will be withdrawn from arts, humanities and social science courses.

As Universities Minister David Willetts admitted when we debated the plans in the House of Commons, the Government’s proposals are “not simply a matter of saving public money”.

They are a deeply ideological re-modelling of our university system.

At the same time, Educational Maintenance Allowances are being withdrawn. These grants last year helped 7,000 Sheffield students from lower income backgrounds stay on in education beyond the age of 16, gaining vital qualifications and the opportunity of going on to university.

Many will miss out altogether and still more will face enormous debt, while those from the wealthiest backgrounds will be able to buy the greatest advantage.

The values on which our university system was built over decades are being torn up. And where was the mandate for this change?

We know Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems have shamefully reneged on their personal pledges not to increase fees, but these fundamental changes to our higher education system were not mentioned in either the Conservative manifesto or the Coalition agreement either.