Students are rampaging at the prospect of university fees rising to possibly £9,000 a year.
I’m completely with them, and pondering how lucky I am.
When I retired in 2005, after thirty-five years of teaching, I did what I would have liked to do many years earlier, and registered for a Ph. D. The fees were steep – just over £3000 a year, but I had enough in savings to manage them. At £9,000 a year I couldn’t have thought about it. Yet again, I’m reminded that my generation has been immensely fortunate (usually quite undeservedly). Here’s my autobiography.
I was born in September 1945 (having been conceived in Aberdeen at Christmas 1944, where my father, captain of a minesweeper, had just forty-eight hours leave, so telegrammed my mother to make the the journey up from London to briefly meet him). When he was demobbed, we went to live in suburban Essex, where bomb-sites were a part of the landscape.
But the point about the post-war years is that while things were sometimes grim, they were constantly getting better. It was the most optimistic of times (especially for a kid who had never heard of atom bombs or other things that might be worrying the heads of grown-ups). Rationing gradually went and the good things flowed back into the shops. Regularly my mother would come in with some delicacy that had been unavailable since 1939. “As good as pre-war” was one of her standard phrases. Like most ordinary families, we gradually bought consumer goods that transformed our lives – television, car, washing machine, refrigerator.
I passed the eleven-plus, so got a pretty solid secondary education. I went to Brentwood School in Essex (where I was for a while in the same form as Jack Straw, later Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Minister of Justice, etc.). At that time it was a direct grant school, so most of the pupils were paid for by the state. After Mrs Thatcher introduced comprehensive education in the seventies, the place went independent, so now students have to pay a large amounts for the kind of moderately privileged education that I was given free of charge.
I then went to Manchester University, not only with my fees paid, but with a full grant that was just about enough to survive on. After that, I was pretty relaxed about getting into employment for a while, but was able to pick up temping jobs for a year or so, before getting on to a Ministry of Overseas Development scheme that took me to Zambia. This meant one year of teacher-training at the new University there (with a healthy living allowance) and then two and a half years teaching in a secondary school. I left with a gratuity that financed myself, wife and daughter through my M.A. year at Leicester University. (I had to pay some fees, but they were far from monstrous).
I then taught English for thirty-three years, in comprehensive schools. At sixty I had accrued enough pension to be able to retire. This was based on my final salary and (with my wife’s) adequate. The teachers’ scheme also awards a lump sum at the end of one’s service. I was hardly rich, but could afford the £3,000 odd a year fees to study for a Ph.D. at Oxford Brookes. Now I am 65, and have my state pension as well as my teacher’s pension (and old people’s perks like winter fuel payments and free bus travel). So I can’t complain.
When I mention all this to my juniors, they tend to get growly and resentful. Their University education was not free. They had to pay fees and take out large loans to support themselves. Most will probably need to work well past sixty, and their pensions will be based on a career average, not final salary. Since I began teaching on less than a thousand a year, I can see that this kind of arrangement would seriously have diminished my pension pot. The state pension starting date is also liable to move inexorably forward – 66, 67, 68…
And as for studying after retirement… If the fees had been even £7,000 a year (the lowest figure being bandied about at the moment) I wouldn’t have considered enrolling as a late-blooming Ph.D. student. Doubtless I should have found some other way of filling my time, but I should have missed out – this research has been immensely satisfying.
Among the Brookes Arts and Humanities postgraduates there were several of roughly my age. There were also younger people who wanted the degree for career purposes, but for us older ones it was a matter of post-career enrichment. A couple of the women had begun by doing Bachelor degrees at Brookes, had gone on to Masters, and were now going for doctorates.
Some young postgraduates may well be able to find bursaries, but many probably won’t. And those already lumbered with a £27,000 debt from their undergraduate course (and maybe more from an M.A. Year) will think very seriously before embarking on a Ph.D.
Hard-nosed economists will doubtless look at me and say sniffily that they don’t see why the state should subsidise my fun. I can see the point, while wondering how much Arts postgraduates are actually subsidised. I have certainly met Ph.D. Students who wonder whether they are getting value for money – £3,000 a year for use of a library and meetings with supervisors a couple of times a term… Science postgrads need laboratory space and expensive equipment. Arts students put remarkably few demands on the institution where they study. If the fees rise dramatically, I can foresee a big change in the relationship between students and supervisors, with the former being more demanding, and the latter under much more pressure to guarantee a pass.
Ah well, the powers that be are nothing if not consistent. For years now, adult education at a less elevated level has been withering. Many institutions that used to run evening classes in life-enhancing subjects – pottery or creative writing, say – have cut back on these because the government and local authorities prefer to subsidise the obviously practical – business studies, plumbing and the like. Yet these opportunities for self-improvement can make a huge difference to people’s lives. The outcomes are rarely immediate or showy, but they are real.
Yet the government scrimps on valuable humane services like these, while blowing billions on the wretched Olympic Games, and our Prime Minister wastes his efforts on a doomed bid for the World Cup. (Didn’t he realise how unpopular we are in the world? Doesn’t he watch Eurovision?) I’ve been trying to imagine the response of Gladstone or Lord Salisbury to the suggestion that they should make an official trip abroad, just to arrange a football match…
But I’m getting off the subject, so I’d better stop writing. I won’t stop counting my blessings, though