As I write this, after weeks of student protests, the coalition government has voted to increase tuition fees to £9,000. How angry I feel about this has really taken me by surprise.
Recently I wrote a piece for my MSN.co.uk blog on university fees. One of my blog users demanded I come clean and admit I went to Cambridge University. She was right. In the 1990s, I was fortunate enough to attend Newnham College, famous for being an all-female institution and attended by the likes of Emma Thompson, Sylvia Plath and AS Byatt. I grew up in Essex and went to a state school in Romford. My mother was a primary school teacher before she retired and my father a London taxi driver. They worked hard to encourage in me a love of reading and hard work.
Luckily for me, I was strong academically – it was the only thing I was good at in fact as I was always lousy at everything else! So one day in 1994 (after finding a book in the school library about applying to Oxbridge and having the sheer balls to have a go) I found myself propelled to Newnham. There I rubbed shoulders with Professor Germaine Greer and other incredibly intelligent people from all walks of life. Some had attended public school and were the children of famous politicians and barristers. Others, like myself, were not. Whatever our backgrounds, we were all united by our good grades and thirst for knowledge. Strangely enough, I never felt inferior to any of my fellow students because I wasn’t rich or posh – not even when one asked if she could borrow a pair of white stilletos from me for a fancy dress party – quite the opposite. I felt entitled to be there because of the A-level results I had achieved and because my director of studies Jean Gooder had selected me at interview. I was there on merit.
Money wasn’t a worry, either. We weren’t rich but I had a small grant, worked each summer and my mother had saved the child benefit from when I was born to cover other expenses. My mother is great with money and made it all work. Plus these were the halcyon days before tuition fees. I left university in the black which sounds like an impossible dream now. Looking back, I can’t believe how lucky I was when I think of what many students have to go through now financially.
So it makes me feel very angry when I think that, from now on, other geeky, bookish sixth formers like my 18 year old self, bright and talented enough to attend Cambridge or elsewhere but lacking £40,000 in cold hard cash, will have to give up on their dream or drown in debt. I know that these are difficult times, but there is something fundamentally wrong here.
Will we be reduced to universities – and future governments – full of rich Tim Nice But Dim types who can afford to attend because their parents can pick up the tab? I wonder. Times are hard and university is an expensive business because there are so many students. Figures I saw on BBC News the other night showed, I think, that in 1990 something like 157,000 students started university – now the figure is around 451,000.
However, I cannot help but feel we have stepped several yards back in the fight for equality. The gap between rich and poor grows ever deeper and more bitter. And, when something as fundamental as the right to equality in education is taken away like this, it is hard to feel that this is progress.