People complain that tuition fees have destroyed aspiration. But who is to blame, the government, or those who promote the myth

Speaking in the Times someone of evident distinguished nature proceeds to demolish Mr. Milburn for daring to chair a commission into Social Mobility, grandly exposing the politician as party to the wholesale destruction of the hopes of the poor to ever attend University. Or so I imagine the writer of this letter imagined as he wrote it. In reality the true picture is perhaps less compelling a tale of betrayal and treachery as many think. In fact, do they not know it, but they may in part be inadvertently responsible for this image of destroyed aspiration themselves.

Mr. Rees proclaims from his ten foot armchair of justice, that “Today’s average student debt of about £40,000, encouraged by Mr Milburn’s government, is a significant factor in prohibiting those from poor families entering a long degree course”. He also boldly proclaims that “This was the dying era of university grants, which enabled me but not my ancestors to access higher education”, despite the fact that grants were progressively slashed during this “dying era”, to the extent that I can live on a far healthier diet through today’s support granted to University students than my eldest siblings could back in the 90s. This is a funny way of assessing the enabling qualities of university grants.

Furthermore, Mr. Rees contends the Today’s average student debt of £40,000 “prohibits” those from poor families from entering a long degree course. Perhaps he would have done well to consult those from poor families on long degree courses. They might have given him a slightly more nuanced answer.

I am not from a poor family, but I am on the full means-tested grant, used to cushion the long-term costs of university education (IE the so-called “debt” – more later) for poorer students. I am also on a four-year course. Therefore I feel qualified to comment in considerably more detail than Mr. Rees has done.

The combined effect of the student loans, tuition loans and maintenance grants means that I can live far more adequately at University than my predecessors (IE siblings) have done. I thus do not feel more “prohibited” than they do, having chosen to take up a course in Music and risk the £40,000 of debt.

Here we come to my biggest point of contention. The £40,000 of debt that Mr. Rees makes such a big deal out of is in fact not the prohibiting factor he makes it out to be at all. This is because it is actually deferred taxation, and thus the main striking feature of it is that it cannot bankrupt you. Thus this image of prohibition Mr. Rees conjures up suddenly vanishes with as magically as it arose. For though the prospect of being taxed 9% extra on my earnings over £15,000 per annum does not exactly thrill me, it is in no way, shape or form a prohibiting factor. If anything, it merely gives me cause to reflect on whether I am certain of my priorities.

What it might, possibly do is encourage me to be prudent with the money the government allows me for my University education in the knowledge that the more I save, the more I can pay back earlier. This might even not be such a bad thing. Adjusting to the fact that everything costs money in life, whether through up-front fees or taxation, is often something which can be hard for young adults. I may have cause to thank the government for forcing me to consider this earlier rather than later.

But what may prove damaging, even devastating, for some people, is if commentators and members of the public persist in claiming as loudly as possible that University education is now unaffordable; cherry-picking the pacts so to make many people from poor families believe that they face a choice of not going to university or bankruptcy. If this is shouted loudly enough from the pages of the mainstream media, who knows, it might even become true. Fancy that, a myth becoming self-fulfilling. I hope the press enjoy their new found powers of prophecy – because I know that precious few of the rest of us will.


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