Ryan Henson is an East Hertfordshire district councillor, and is Head of Government Relations at an international development organisation. He writes in a personal capacity.
In her very first speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May drew attention to the fact that ‘If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.’ If we are going to build a Britain that works for everyone, that fact should be at the heart of the review of tuition fees and university funding launched by the Government recently.
As any white, working class boy, who chose not to go to university will tell you, most of us didn’t make the decision consciously while weighing up the pros and cons of tuition fee debt. Instead, poor schools, lack of aspiration, and in many cases a dysfunctional upbringing, all led to shoddy exam results, which made the decision for us. If you’ve got the grades tuition fee debt might be a factor, but if you haven’t then the concept of pursuing higher education will never really cross your mind. If we want to get more white (and non-white), working class, boys (and girls) to university – and as the party of social justice we have a duty to ensure they at least have the choice – then cutting tuition fees won’t do it.
The recently ousted Labour leader of Haringey Council said of her left-wing opponents: ‘Some of the harshest critics of the (housing) regeneration scheme are public schoolboys who live in homes bought with inherited wealth.’ The debate about tuition fees has also been hijacked by middle class socialists who do far more harm than good. As Bright Blue and others have made clear, in addition to not improving the life chances of white, working class, boys, abolishing tuition fees would disproportionately benefit the highest earning graduates at the expense of the poor. To put it as bluntly as I did in my speech to Conservative Party conference last year, Labour’s plans would give every rich kid in Britain a tax cut and leave working class people to pick up the tab.
We need post-Brexit, buccaneering, Britain to have access to every available talent. The fact that 45 per cent of Conservative MPs are privately educated, despite only seven per cent of the population attending private schools, should serve as a wake-up call. We can either carry on selecting tomorrow’s leaders from that tiny talent pool or we can choose to raise up the other 93 per cent.
Research shows that investment in the early years of a child’s life is the most effective way to improve his or her long-term life chances. Anyone who’s served as a school governor in a deprived area will know that schools, never mind universities, have only a limited impact on life outcomes when compared to that of friends and family. Robert Putnam has shown how important parenting and family structure are to life outcomes: Childhood stimulation, positive role models, stable homes, and family meal times are vital in producing socially mobile adults. Poverty causes family breakdown, just as much as family breakdown causes poverty, so targeted investment could help soften the blow of both, boosting the chance of a child reaching the end of their school career with the grades and the ambition to apply to university and then beat the hand life dealt them.
When the evidence is so clear, instead of arguing about whether to cut or not cut tuition fees, we should be asking ourselves why, even after the excellent decision by Justine Greening to increase spending in this area, we still choose to spend more per student on universities than we do on early years support. For disadvantaged children, doing so is like moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic when we still have a good chance of changing the direction of the ship.
Until apprenticeships are as popular with the children of lawyers as they are with the children of hairdressers, a degree will continue to be an essential vehicle for the ambitious to get ahead in life. Without a magic money tree, we need to accept that cutting fees would leave even less in the pot to spend on early years, where intervention is most effective. The review of university funding should demand that universities are better managed financially to ensure that fees rise no further. It should also demand a far greater focus on early years funding and start a national debate on how best we can support families and children in the most deprived areas of Britain.
As the party that put John Major, a working class boy from Brixton who never went to university, into 10 Downing Street, we should not be afraid to point out that Labour are siding with the rich against the poor when they call for tuition fees to be abolished. We should reset the terms of the debate so that by the time today’s generation of working class boys and girls are old enough to apply to university, their ambition, not their grades, will be the only thing holding them back.