How did we get from the idea of a reasonable contribution to the cost of university tuition – the principle of the Blair reform of 2004, for which I was largely responsible – to today’s Frankenstein’s monster of £50,000-plus debts for graduates on modest salaries who can’t remotely afford to pay back these sums while starting families?
And why did we give university vice-chancellors a licence to print money, and pay themselves £400,000 salaries, in a decade when austerity has dominated every other public service, including schools and hospitals?
It is a morality tale of opportunism and greed on the part of vice-chancellors, and one thing leading to another, in a typically unplanned British way, on the part of successive governments.
It all began 30 years ago, with seriously underfunded universities trying to work out a survival strategy in the face of Margaret Thatcher’s dislike of all things public sector – particularly universities, after Oxford refused to grant her an honorary degree in 1985. In an act of semi-privatisation, the Thatcher government removed controls on fees for international students.
This deregulation soon established a vibrant market for students from overseas, giving higher education a vital source of non-state income. It also converted the vice-chancellors to the cause of fees for home students.
Debt levels for new graduates are now so high that the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that three-quarters of graduates will never pay it all back.