So Jo Johnson the new Conservative Universities Minister has come up with an idea which he appears to think will improve opportunities for success in Higher Education. He is going to put the fees up. He could not be more wrong.
I was fortunate enough to do my studying in the early 70s. I was paid a grant and did not have to shell out for fees. I was therefore able to become the first member of my family to get a degree. In fact after taking a Master's Degree and a teaching certificate I was paid for six years to study full time at University and emerged without a penny of debt.
Those who study for a degree at the moment are somewhat less fortunate. If you finished a three year degree this summer then you had £27,000 of debt from the course fees plus whatever it cost you for accommodation and living expenses. If you took a part time job and were frugal you could probably just about manage to emerge with £40,000 of debt. Marry a fellow student and the family debt would be up to £80,000.
If you come from a working class background and there is no prospect of anyone but yourself paying off this kind of fee then you already need to think long and hard about whether you really can afford to go to university. A lot of young people are prepared to do so. Some are not. They are put off from applying for university by the cost and never get the chance to find out what they might have achieved if they had.
Mr Johnson's solution is to make that situation even worse. He has published a Green Paper proposing that fees should go up - provided that the University can pass a test of its teaching ability. Effectively he wants to introduce Ofsted into Universities and let those who pass their Ofsted inspection with high scores charge more for their degrees than those that don't.
Leave aside for a moment any doubts about whether what is needed is yet another mechanism for the state to pass top down judgements on the quality of education. Let's also ignore any doubts over the control mechanism this might give the state over what universities teach. Just assume for a minute that it works and it enables students to know exactly which are the best universities and for those to be the most expensive.
What are the incentives then for potential students? If you pass enough exams then you would be faced with a choice. You could go for an Oxford or Cambridge Oxford degree and be left with sky high debts. Or you could go for a good degree where the fees were high, a middling to poor degree which creates lower debts or significantly lower financial risks but a degree that you already know is not very good. Which will people choose?
If you come from a well off background then you could probably rely on some help from your parents or grandparents and would probably go for the best degree you could. If your family don't have any wealth then you might very well go for something cheaper and less cheerful or decide not to bother at all.
Johnson's proposals are therefore almost the perfect design to ensure that the class system reproduces itself through education. It will cost the poor too much to join the rich at Oxford and Cambridge. As such they re-enforce the worst aspects of recent trends in education.
The most significant change to our school system over the past decade has not been the much publicised creation of academies. It has been the creation of a near ghetto style division between schools depending on what kind of catchment area they serve. Middle class schools serving middle class children have, on the whole, been doing well. If you can afford to move into the catchment area for one of them then you can pretty much rely on your child having every chance of success. As house prices have risen fewer and fewer working class kids have had the chance to go to this kind of school. Working class schools serving rough areas have not been doing so well. Look at any list of schools that have failed Ofsted inspections and check the socio-economic characteristics of its catchment area and you will find that they are overwhelmingly schools looking after poorer people. The reasons are simple. As any teacher will tell you it is relatively easy to teach middle class kids that want to learn in a nice environment and extraordinarily hard to teach kids who believe that they are doomed to fail and where the smart well behaved teacher's pet tends to get beaten up.
There are, of course, exceptions that prove the rule. There are first class schools in some inner city areas and really badly run schools in some nice ones. But the results achieved haven't been getting closer and more equal. They have become more exaggerated and unequal. Good schools are getting better and schools in difficult areas are not progressing as rapidly.
In these circumstances active policies to counteract the inequality are necessary. Give the Liberal Democrats their due, that is exactly what the pupil premium did and it was one of the best policies put forward for many years. Give Nicki Morgan her due, her policy of creating a panel of highly paid really good teachers who could be sent into failing schools also ought to help. No inner city Head Teacher in their right mind would turn down an offer of a confident, effective, enthusiastic and experienced new member of staff even if it their extra pay for doing what loyal members of staff had been doing for years did generate a bit of resentment in the staff room. Neither measure is enough but both are helpful.
One of the reasons why it is important to give credit to a Minister you normally disagree with when she comes up with a good idea is that it highlights even more sharply the unnecessary stupidity of the policy of other Ministers. Nicki Morgan has proposed something that is clearly well intentioned and might just help a few more working class kids to get the chance to get into a decent University. Johnson has proposed something that would almost guarantee that they couldn't afford to take up the chance. University has always been a mechanism which has allowed some working class people to make it to the top. He is in the process of closing that mechanism down and making it a service where the quality of what you get is utterly dependent upon the depth of your pockets. I am not quite sure what the right way to describe this is. But the one thing I am sure of is that no reasonable person could describe this policy as well intentioned or well conceived!
The author has over 30 years experience of teaching and then managing in inner city areas in further education including being Director of Hillsborough College in Sheffield, Executive Director of the Learning and Skills Council in the Black Country and Regional Director of Young People's Learning for Yorkshire and the Humber