Tuesday, 12 October 2010

A short story set in a browne brick thatched college...

...and I hope a work of Fiction.

Cross posted on Liberal Democrats in Northern Ireland

Sitting in his rocking chair in 2050 Stephen Glenn is talking to his eldest great-nephew about to head up to Belfast Metropolitan College rather than Cambridge University or Oxford University, where 40 years earlier he would have been smart enough to go.

It was Thatcher what started it you know?

I was there a fresh-faced young student back then, with hair, stop your sniggering. No where was I? Oh yes I was a fresh-faced student. Back then there was what was called a maintenance grant.

No. That wasn't what paid for your education that was actually what was given to students dependent on your parental income to actually help you afford to live away from home at the University of your choice.

Fees? Oh they were all paid for you didn't pay a sausage everything that was required to teach you was paid for by the Government. The only requirement was that you had the right results at school to prove you were smart enough for the course. It was the learning power that was good enough to determine where you went not you parent's earning power. How do you think Granda and Granny and Great Aunt Jacqui managed to get to St. Andrews?

Me? No I went to Kingston.

No, it wasn't because I wasn't smart. I was pretty smart I just didn't dedicate all myself to academic achievement. I was smart enough to get by at a top-level, if I'd done less extra-curricular stuff I'd have achieved a lot more. Anyway we're digressing.

Any way Baroness Thatcher. Yes she is still around. Maybe there is a painting of her somewhere that keeps her hanging on. But she wasn't a Baroness then, merely the Prime Minister. Her Government, sorry Her Majesty's Government, of which Thatcher were head, Mícheál would kill me if he were here for such a slip, decided to bring in student loans instead of grants.

So your great-uncle. No me! Not your other great-uncle, and thousands of others marched on Westminster shouting 'Grants not loans."

Why? Well we knew that if we started to give out loans to fund people's higher education it was just the top of the iceberg. For starters the richer students would not take out loans anyway, mater and pater, would see them through with their silver spoons in their mouths since birth. So it would only be the poorer students who would end up accumulating debt.

Also although they were only going to limit loans initially to a certain proportion of the maintenance grant amount and at a rate below commercial rates of interest for repayment, this would slowly be eroded. There was also going to be the incentive that once people borrowed money to feed, clothe, accommodate and transport themselves, some government would then make them also pay for the education.

We shouted that at the time. We? Oh the National Union of Students and students in general. Oh yes Students were Unionised back then, before the riots of 2011, when David Cameron decided he couldn't allow political activity on University Campuses outside of the Oxford and Cambridge Unions*.

Haha. No on the pretence that the other Universities weren't capable of engaging in sensible civilised political debate.

Anyway slowly but surely changes happened. First there was the removal of grants altogether and all the maintenance coming from loans or parental contribution. Then they brought in Tuition Fees, which again could be paid for by loans. Then the Liberal Democrats helped get rid of Tuition Fees in Scotland.

Yes, I was part of that. You've seen the pictures. Me with Charles Kennedy, Nick Clegg and Jo Swinson the first Liberal Democrat Prime Minister for 100 years.

Anyway then came the Browne report. Instead of merely increasing the cap on tuition fees it called for the removal of it altogether. Mere months after all the Lib Dem MP and other candidates including me had signed a pledge that we would vote against any rise recommended by Browne when his report was published. My Cameron had asked those same MPs to promise to abstain, rather that vote against if after decades for some of campaigning against this movement to the rich being able to afford the best education carried on.

They were good men and women. Initially it was only 30 but their number grew as the pressure from the party faithful grew. It grew large enough that with all the opposition parties we would have beaten the raise in Tuition Fees but then Ed Miliband told his troops to march through the aye lobby. Many did but a few hung back and joined the Lib Dems in the noes lobby. Sadly it was heavily won and since then smart kids like you, and your dad have found it really hard to get to a good University. Indeed you are the first Glenn family member in 4 generations not to go to University, despite you being smarter than all of us, with the possible exception of your granny. Simple because we cannot afford to send you to Queen's and the University of Ulster sadly got absorbed into it during the worse days for Higher Education.

Update: There is now a Facebook Group called Lib Dems Against Scraping the Cap, joining other PPCs, AMs and others.

* Nice subtle play on words here as these two institutions are not unions in the sense of the common man's vernacular.

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