Gerard de Groot: Free for all education a thing of the past

Higher education funding in England is, to recycle a Winston Churchill phrase, 'a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma'. In Scotland, it's all that, but packaged in a conundrum. British universities are currently in crisis because, since 1945, a complicated problem of social engineering has been treated like a simple question of economics.

Free higher education was one of the pillars of the postwar welfare state. That noble idea grew from two assumptions. The first was that while education benefits the individual, it benefits society even more. The second assumption held that education was the best way to escape the cul de sac of class. Both assumptions were, and should remain, incontrovertible. Unfortunately, free higher education was constructed on the premise of 'if we build it, they will come', with 'they' meaning the working class. That premise proved mistaken. The working class proved reluctant to take up the benefits provided. The vast majority of free places were instead gobbled up by middle class kids.

Out of good intentions grew one of the most regressive reforms of the postwar period: working class taxpayers funded the higher education of the middle class.

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Postwar governments failed to understand that making something free does not automatically make it attractive. The task of increasing working class enrolment was never a simple matter of economics. The working class had first to be convinced that university provided an effective ladder of social mobility. That task of promoting the merits of higher education was sadly neglected. As a result, borrowing money for university still seems to many a much riskier prospect than, say, borrowing money to buy a car.

Granted, a great deal of progress has occurred since 1945. Working class enrolment at university has increased dramatically, though so, too, has that of the middle class. New enrolment peaked in 2009, when 482,000 students entered, nearly double the level in the early 1990s. Successive governments have been guided by a tendency to judge success in terms of the number of students enrolled, rather than looking closely at what they study.

A half million new students every year might be a good thing, but it's not affordable. Free higher education was only sustainable when ten per cent of high school students went to university. The introduction of fees in 1998 was an acknowledgement that free higher education was impossible if participation rose to 33 percent.The legislation stemming from the Browne Report, which allows English universities to charge up to 9,000 per annum, further acknowledges that simple fact. When participation approached 50 per cent, the burden on the taxpayer became crippling.

Free higher education was supposed to be progressive, but was in fact regressive since workers bore the burden of educating the middle class. The Browne report, in contrast, looks regressive, but could in fact be progressive since those who benefit most from university will bear the largest financial cost. It's even possible that genuinely free places will be restored for the most disadvantaged.

Everything, though, depends on whether working class loyalty to the higher education ideal remains hardy. Will the working class remain interested in university if costs seem to rise? If the answer is no, class barriers will be reinforced and the Browne Report will go down in history as the most disastrous reform ever imposed upon higher education.

Nick Clegg is certainly worried about the fragility of working class faith. On 30 November, he attacked fees protesters for encouraging the belief that university would become unaffordable for those on low income. "It would be a tragedy", he said, "if we inadvertently allowed our debate about the methods to damage our shared goal to encourage more students from poorer homes to go to university".

He has every reason to be worried. Recent studies suggest that higher education does not bring the financial benefit once assumed. Figures from 2009 showed that more than one-third of the graduates who started university after 1998 were not earning above the 15,000/year threshold that rendered them liable to repayment of their fees. This suggests too many students go to university, and that oversupply of graduates has depressed the market value of a degree. The young working class student has every reason to wonder whether university is worth his money, or his time.

So where does this leave Scotland? A green paper on education, Scotland's answer to the Browne Report, is imminent. What are the options for Mike Russell, the Cabinet Secretary for Education? They are woefully limited since the shape of Scottish higher education is decided in Whitehall, not Holyrood. Russell has some control over the way the Scottish system is funded, but he has little influence over the factors that make it so expensive.

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The British higher education system is in a mess. The 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, which granted university status to the former polytechnics, was the biggest disaster to befall British higher education since 1945, and lies at the heart of the current funding crisis. There are too many universities, too many students and too many graduates who leave without marketable skills. The balance between academic and vocational courses needs to be adjusted in favour of the latter.

These are all serious problems, some of which foretell disaster ahead.But they are not problems Russell can do much about, since they are all the result of an essentially English higher education system being imposed upon Scotland. There are, however, two important things Russell can do, both of which fall under the category of preserving what is wonderful about Scotland, a goal which should appeal to the SNP.

The first is to ensure that the flagship Scottish universities, in particular St Andrews and Edinburgh, do not lose out to their English competitors because of the Browne Report. The vice-chancellors at Oxford, Cambridge, London and the like are delighted at the opportunity to raise their fees to 9,000 because a, they know their students will pay that and b, it will make their institutions even richer. If Scottish universities are not provided a similar opportunity, their international reputation will plummet. So, Mr Russell, it's time to accept that the principle of free higher education in Scotland was a good idea that no longer works. We need fees.

The second thing he can do is to ensure the sanctity of the 'lad o' pairts'. That idea, even if largely a myth, remains a valuable guiding belief. It holds that those from modest backgrounds can use education as an opportunity to improve life. In practice, this means that higher education must remain affordable for those from poor backgrounds. It also means that the government has to ensure that the poor understand the value of education, a task that begins in primary school.

"Value" should not be measured solely by the salary that follows. The 'lad o' pairts' ideal was not about making individuals wealthy but about making society more cultured and humane.

The Browne Report is a brutal set of reforms that will probably eviscerate English higher education. It is nevertheless the logical result of six decades of mismanagement during which social engineering was confused with economics. But there's no reason for the Scots to mimic the English. A problem can be an opportunity. Though Russell's options are limited, he does have the chance to preserve what's best about Scotland.

• Gerard de Groot is Professor of Modern History, University of St Andrews.