The violent chaos at Conservative Party HQ in central London on Wednesday caused spasms of consternation across the country. Although the guilty parties were a small minority of 50,000 students who turned out in peaceful protest against proposed hikes in tuition fees, subscribers to the “all publicity is good publicity” thesis will draw plenty of satisfaction from the ugly headlines.
Perhaps this is something David Cameron can relate to. A man who invited cameras into his kitchen and spent so much time cultivating his image before winning power should appreciate the importance of PR in today’s world. The Conservative election campaign was uncharacteristically centred on the party leader, who used every opportunity to promote his persona, trying to convince the nation that he was something new – and not just another “same old” Tory boy.
But good PR can only hide the truth to a limited extent. The current education debate has exposed a tragic lack of this professed progressive change in today’s re-branded Conservative Party. However, it’s not too late: Cameron still has time to save face, and he needs to understand how deeply his government could damage Britain’s future if its new proposals are implemented.
The coalition plan would see the upper fee limit increased to £9,000 – with most universities capped at £6,000, which is slightly less than double the current cost. This comes after a 40% higher education budget cut was announced in the October spending review, accompanied by reports that teaching funds for certain subjects will suffer even more heavily.
With flimsy Lib-Con arguments about creating a fairer system cast to one side, the central concern here is obviously an economic one. The Tories promised to wield a fiscal axe in their manifesto, and the Liberal Democrats seem to have accepted most of these measures in an alarmingly spineless manner – which will surely hit them hard at the ballot box when that time comes, no matter what happens on the fees issue.
In the thick of all this outrage, directed largely at Nick Clegg and his MPs, arguments have been rightly made about higher education becoming an even more exclusive preserve of social elites if the proposals go through. The prospect of £27,000 debt in tuition costs alone (for a three-year course, regardless of living expenses) would seriously discourage university aspirants from pursuing their academic dreams.
Looking at the bigger picture is even more distressing. With so many people unfairly priced out of higher education opportunities, and teaching budgets slashed at the same time, the net result would be a lower number of graduates who pay more to receive less. Britain’s university system, reputed for its excellence across the globe, would suffer an irredeemable PR disaster.
The Prime Minister may have conceded (to a Chinese student, no less) that fees for foreigners studying in the UK will go down, but this would surely be accompanied by a corresponding slump in international intake.
In simple business terms, the country’s ability to sell two of its strongest products – first, the education system itself and, second, its graduates – would be dealt a crushing blow, with wider negative effects in foreign investment and economic development for generations to come.
Despite the logical need for a post-recession era of government belt-tightening, this is arguably the strongest case for saving education at all costs. The fee rise may represent a notable short-term gain in terms of deficit reduction, but its potential future consequences are no less than frightening.
Wednesday’s protesters promised the Millbank invasion episode was just the start. If Cameron wants to preside over an imbalanced society, which confronts many of its best and brightest with overwhelming obstacles to the education they deserve, saddling those who take the risk with a lifetime of financial burden and decimating Britain’s global prestige, he’ll have one hell of a job trying to cultivate his image.