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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Fighting to restore a free education

Tempting as it is to say 'I told you so', it is perhaps more appropriate to reflect on the very sobering results of the latest research into the impact of Labour's punitive and unfair tuition fee regime on higher education.

The Guardian reports that a Staffordshire University study has shown that many students from poor backgrounds are being put off university because they are afraid of getting into debt. Very few of them know about bursaries or maintenance grants on offer. Nearly two-thirds of pupils who decided not to seek higher education cited anxieties about money as their reason.

The number of students planning to study at universities close by, so they can live with their families, has risen from 18% in 1998 to 56% today, the research shows. By comparison, pupils from independent schools are now significantly more likely to move to a university in a different city, opening up the option of Oxbridge and other leading institutions, says the influential charity the Sutton Trust.

Its findings set the government's fee-charging regime at odds with ministers' ambitions to "unlock the potential" of children in the poorest areas of the country and boost the number of them attending top universities, student leaders claim.

Government figures out today suggest a 7% rise in the number of students applying to university - taking applications to record levels - but opposition MPs say the statistics mask a stagnation in the number of pupils from low-income homes applying - and in particular, boys.

The Sutton Trust research, seen by the Guardian, concludes that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds have fewer options, while students at independent schools told the researchers their decisions were based on the "reputations" of the institution, rather than the costs.

The introduction of the market into higher education has favoured the better off at the expense of the poor. It has removed the principle that education should be freely available to all and as a consequence it will have a direct impact on our economy by reducing opportunity for some of our brightest youngsters. The Government needs to rethink this policy.


Since we are talking about 'education" ... what very bad news from Northern Illinois University’s (NIU) campus close to a town called DeKalb in Northern Illinois. As the news came in over the wires I hoped that no one had been shot dead, but alas several are now confirmed dead and some students with life-threatening wounds.

Though a Cardiff Welsh boy, I lived over five years in Illinois in the Midwest belt of America. My then wife’s family lived in the DeKalb area. So I visited DeKalb and the surrounding area countless times, and the NIU campus a few times - my then father-in-law did a history degree at NIU, and I spent some time on the NIU campus looking at doing another post-doc or getting hired on the admin staff. It's a very quiet campus, surrounded by ‘corn fields’. My American father-in-law told me that you could hear the corn grow, but I thought he was pulling my leg until he stopped the car one time and I got out and heard the cracking of corn growing in the humid heat of a pitch black moonless summer night.

DeKalb is quintessential Middle America, the part of America made up of small family towns, family farms and family things.

I can only guess at the feeling of hurt and shock that the ordinary folks around DeKalb must be going through right now. God Bless Them All, Every One of Them.
Ten years ago, when the news of student fees was announced by the new New Labour government, a fellow A-Level student far more able academically than I ended up not going to university due to fears of financial problems, despite the student loans, etc. The last I heard, that bright and able student was stuck in a dead-end job as a supermarket check-out bod....
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