Supporting the students

December 10 2010

That’s all of them – not just the ones in the UK right now.

I feel utterly remiss that the two biggest stories of the year – Wikileaks and the student protests – are going on while I’ve been either preparing for a long trip abroad or while I’m on it. I’ve all the protests in person, but here’s my thoughts about yesterday’s demo.

Higher education may not be a basic human right, but any country that has a system like the one the UK had 20 years ago should be bloody proud of itself. The fact that successive governments of all flavours – Tory, Labour and Coalition – have finally taken it apart is a matter of national shame.

University fees aren’t an economic argument – there’s a convincing school of thought that says any state investment in higher education is more than returned through the tax remmitances of the enhanced earning potential a degree offers. It works for Scotland. This is about the perception of a subsidy to more of the ‘underserving poor’, in this case students.

Free and universal education to degree level is about creating a better society. About saying that we, en masse, value the benefits that learning brings. It’s about saying i doesn’t matter whether or not your degree turns into a career and a massive paycheck (mine didn’t), rather that there are some things about the value of learning which can’t be measured financially.

It’s not a coincidence that the introduction of tuition fees – along with a raft of other Labour policies – marked the beginning of an era which many commentators felt was all about personal avarice and understanding the ‘price of everything and valu of nothing’.

Discovering, when I was 18 and about to leave school, that people from modest or poor backgrounds to decide – without considering the finances – that they’d ‘like to’ go to university, rather than ‘need to’ or ‘can’t afford’ to was one of the valuable, inspiration and life changing experiences of my life. It set the stage (literally, I studied English & Drama) for everything that happened afterwards, and while I don’t work in theatre, it has enriched my world more than that 18 year old boy’s imagination deemed possible.

Anyone had the opportunity I had. It was one of the few things that straddled the class divide. That my daughter will not be able to make that decision with the same freedom breaks my heart.

She will have the opportunity, because I am certain I will be able to provide it for her – but only because my own education was free.

Education is a subject close to my heart. In three weeks I’ll be going back to Zambia to visit Simakakata primary school and see what effect 18 months of help from Care International and LearnAsOne has produced. Not because I work for a charity or because I’m being paid to write about it, but because I believe the best way to help people out of poverty – like the people at Simakakata I’m proud to call friends – is to help them build a good school – and I want to see if I’m right.

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