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We hear a lot about lifelong education, and a good thing too. But we have a government that seems to think life ends at 18. The contrast between official attitudes to schools and post-school education is striking. The contrast is most striking in two areas: religious discrimination and public support for costs.

Religous discriminatiion and selection

The Universities Tests Act was passed on 18 June 1871, while William Gladstone (Liberal) was Prime minister. It was "An Act to alter the law respecting Religious Tests in the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham, and in the Halls and Colleges of those Universities". Of course UCL was founded in 1826, partly as a place that was free of religious discrimination. Since 1871 it has been illegal for a university to discriminate among applicants on the basis of their religious beliefs or lack of them. For the last 140 years it has been unimaginable that anyone would try to do such a thing.

In stark contrast, in 2010, religious discrimination among entrance to primary and secondary schools is not only legal, but is actively encouraged by the government. It was a trend that got worse while the ‘reverend’ Tony Blair (illiberal) was prime minister. The minister of education under the new conservative regime promised even more religious schools.

Why the rules should be diametrically opposite when you are younger than 18 from when you are over 18 is baffling.

It is equally baffling (and perhaps a partial explanation) that universities are not regarded by this government, or by Blair’s, as part of education at all. They are governed by the Department of Business, not the Department of Education.

Why should a postman pay for your university education?

I imagine that I’m not the only person who has wrestled with this question in the last few weeks (Stephen Law’s thoughts here)

In the UK it is a legal requirement to stay in full time education until the age of 16, and that should be increased to 18 by 2015. Although most children stay in school until 18, around 25% or 30% don’t. I have never heard anybody question the idea that education from 16 to 18 should not be supported 100 percent by the state, out of general taxation. That is the case despite the fact that not everybody stays in education up to 18.

Education up to the age of 18 is regarded as a common good and nobody questions for a moment that it should be free at the point of use.

Once again, everything changes entirely when you reach 18. Education is not regarded as a continuum, or as a life-long project. Suddenly at the age of 18, it stops being a public good worthy of state support, and becomes an optional extra for those who are rich, or those who are not deterred by the idea of going though life paying a debt that will, in some cases, approach the size of the mortgage on their house.

The ConDem coalition, on December 9th 2010, has come very close to privatising the teaching of humanities in universities. You are encouraged to learn languages from 16 – 18 and then these are dropped like a hot cake.

The result has been riots by schoolchildren and total discrediting of Liberal democrats who voted for one of the most philistine measures in living memory.

The discussion of this legislation has, in my view, focussed on the wrong thing. It has been almost entirely about the mechanisms for paying off an enormous debt. That was the wrong place to start. This is what should have been done.

(1) Consider what is being funded. Should the university system adapt to present circumstances, e.g by abolishing honours degrees and creating real graduate schools, as I suggested recently in the Times?   Disgracefully, the government has rushed headlong into changes in funding without waiting to consider what it should be funding. Equally disgracefuly, Universities UK (the vice-chancellors’ trade union) has made no constructive suggestions for change, but appears to be rendered immobile by a rift between the Russell group VCs who want to grab as much as they can as soon as possible, and other VCs who fear for their existence.

(2) After deciding what form universities should have in the future, you can then go on to discuss how much public money should be used to support the system.

(3) Only after both of these have been done, does it make sense to talk about how you pay back any contribution made by the student (and that contribution should be, at most, no bigger than now).

In their haste to make people pay high fees, the government seems to have got the worst of both worlds. They have devised a scheme that, in the long run, is likely to cost the taxpayer as much as, or even more than, the present system, while at the same time trebling fees to students. It’s hard to imagine greater incompetence than that.

But the question still lurks: why should a postman pay for your university education? My answer is yes, but not much. They should pay because, although they may not get any direct benefit themselves, their children certainly may. The fairest, most progressive, tax is income tax. If you are a postman, or indeed a graduate, on a low income you shouldn’t pay much tax, so you won’t pay much for, inter alia, other people’s university education.

I can see no reason for the sudden change in attitude to, and funding of, education that happens when you reach 18.

I see every reason why kids should be angry. I doubt that we have seen the last of the riots.

I hope not anyway.


See also UCL’s Beautiful Occupation. Students seem to think more clearly about what’s happening than either university management or the government.

December 10 2010, The New York Times points out that tuition fees in the UK will, under this scheme, be double those of public universities in the USA."this new policy is an utter failure."

December 11 2010. An NHS doctor writes

"I was slightly dissapointed when 7/8 of my first year medical students showed up for their last day of teaching at my practice on thursday December 9th. The eighth student was ill, so not one of them was protesting. When I asked them why not they said that in their first week as medical students they were told not to get involved in any protests because even a police caution would mean they might be thrown off the course and almost certainly they wouldn’t get a job. Images of Fascist Spain or Nazi Germany came immediately to mind (I have just read Alone in Berlin)"

December 11 2010. The Guardian reports:

Liberal Democrat grassroots hit back over tuition fees
Richard Grayson, former director of policy, says Liberal Democrats should move closer to Ed Miliband and Labour

That sounds better.

December 12 2010. The Observer reports:
“Police officers ‘tried to stop hospital staff treating injured protester’ Mother of injured student Alfie Meadows said that her son’s life could have been put at risk by the journey to another hospital”.

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25 Responses to Why should a postman pay for your university education? And why does free education end at 18?

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Josie Fraser, Pam Blundell, Kev and others. Kev said: RT @david_colquhoun: Quick post. Why should a postman pay for your university education? http://bit.ly/eN7mtu […]

  • CaretakerRob says:

    Do you really hope there are more riots? Is a punch up the best way to get things changed? And doesn’t it just play into the hands of the Government who can use it to divert from the issue?

    I’ve been eligible to vote for 25 years but living in a true blue town in Sussex that vote has never given me any say in the running of this country. The Liberals may be losing credibility but they’ve got to hold on until we get a chance at a system where everyone counts, even those of us without Degrees.


  • @CaretakerRob

    Well “more riots” was meant as rhetorical flourish. I wouldn’t myself want to break windows, but neither do I regard breaking windows as a very serious crime. I wouldn’t classify it as violence in any usual meaning of the word.

    It’s too soon yet to allocate blame, but if someone is confined for 7 hours in the cold, with no food, water or toilet facilities (I don’t think that is disputed) it seems to me to be unsurprising that tempers flare.

    To hit someone on the head with a truncheon so hard that he needed 3 hours of brain surgery, seems to me to be violence that is quite incommensurate with breaking windows.

    There is a real dilemma for demonstrators, and it stems from the inadequacy of our mass media. If 50,000 people marched in silence through London, kept well away from Parliament Square, the might get 60 seconds at the end of the TV news, or a paragraph on page 10.

    With the media, it’s a no win situation. If a few windows get broken, it will be front page news, but only the window-breaker. In the last couple of days, TV and newspapers have harped on endlessly about a few broken windows in the Treasury and HRH’s Rolls Royce. There has been very little attention paid to why the kids were so cross, or even to the fate of those in hospital.

  • JohnK says:

    Yes, the trouble with peaceful demonstrations is that politicians are not made very uncomfortable by them. Around a million people marched against the Iraq war in 2003, it was a passionate and well-behaved affair. Tony Blair had no difficulty ignoring it. Conversely, a much smaller demonstration in 1990 turned violent. Margaret Thatcher stepped down and her Poll Tax* was scrapped. Anecdata of course, but it makes the point – politicians have very thick skins. Violent protest reminds them of the true relationship between the rulers and the ruled, and it’s nothing new. Eventually, if they treat us badly enough, we reserve the right to chop off their heads.

    Paul Sagar expresses it better:


    *student loans are also a poll tax of sorts – the rich and the poor assume the same level of debt, regardless of their ability to pay.

  • Margaret says:

    I’m so angry I don’t really know where to start. Perhaps at the beginning when the fees were first introduced?

    I don’t care if you are a teenager or if you are in your fifties, if you want to go up to university to learn, to develop your mind, then we as a society should support you.

    I’m pleased to see your thoughtful approach to this. We need thinkers far more than we need dogmatic TV sound-bite chanters.

    Students and those who marched with them, I am proud of you, keep marching, keep singing, keep educating yourselves about the issues and keep waving your banners.

    I’m really not concerned about smashed windows. Those are insignificant compared to the carnage our government involves itself in around the world. Think about it. It’s not as if a small group of protestors were spraying the place with depleted uranium….

  • kausikdatta says:

    Bravo, Margaret!

    I’ve been following these events from afar (I live across the pond) through blogs and Twitter. Having read many different opinions and viewpoints, I cannot help but wonder what would happen if the same situation were to occur here in the US.

    I don’t care if you are a teenager or if you are in your fifties, if you want to go up to university to learn, to develop your mind, then we as a society should support you.

    That is such a precious and praiseworthy sentiment. Sadly, in the US – where ignorant buffoonery is celebrated, it would likely be derided as ‘socialist’.

  • Majikthyse says:

    David – you are right to address the realities of the further education system, or rather what the realities ought to be. I was the first member of my entire extended family to enrol for a university degree. Back then in the 1960s only a few % of pupils (as they were called then – they are students now) got into sixth forms, and even fewer got into universities. I got an adequate grant and my local authority paid the fees. The country could afford all this as it was a very small market. We now have nearly everyone expecting to get a degree, in everything from particle physics to leisure travel. We are doing this because most other developed countries are doing it. A degree is no longer a mark of distinction as it was in my day, and if it is not to be that but the norm, then it has become part of normal education and should be funded from taxation. Something then has to be found that confers the distinction that a degree did 40 years ago.

    While I appreciate the arguments about the standards of the news media, I don’t really think the violence we have seen has helped the debate.

  • jeffreysnj says:

    Surely the next logical stage will be to start charging for post 16 education – why should those wanting to do A-levels be subsidised – after all the majority of our leaders did not need (or want) any form of state funding up to 18. Why do people even need to read?

    I’m sure that Dean Swift would have been particularly eloquent in this regard.

  • BadlyShavedMonkey says:

    I think the crux of this whole problem, as DC as pointed out repeatedly, is the issue of deciding what should be taught in higher education.

    I can support the view of both DC and Majikthyse that there is not a good logical reason to end free education at 18 in a situation either where the university population is tiny and free entry guarantees access to the bright but poor, or where university entry is near to universal so may as well come out of taxation.

    I think we have a problem where the non-university-educated postman is obliged to pay through his taxes for degrees in Chinese Medicine, but that returns us to the point that the problem is not how to pay for it, but what should be the provision.

  • BadlyShavedMonkey says:

    p.s. What no one seems quite prepared to admit is that, behind the slogan of equipping youth for the “information economy” [or similar appropriately impressive phrase], we are actually simply parking a load of 18-21yr olds outside the productive economy and not counting it as unemployment.

  • Dr PT says:

    First of all David thank you for this analysis. Taking an overall approach to education rather than confining the discussion to 18+ is valuable. I completely agree with your comments regarding the disgraceful extension of religious schools. I have known so many people who have felt obliged to engage in otherwise dishonourable behaviour, pretending to be Christian etc to get access to a reasonable education.

    As for the higher sector, in which I was senior until a few years ago, I am almost beyond rage. In fact several times I have had to switch off the telly before I smashed it. Just as you suggested one felt obliged to support the LibDems at the election because of their apparent policy on fees. However, I recommend your readers view the interview with Nick Clegg conducted by Evan Harris on the LD web site. Harris gets Clegg to express his own view, hypothetically unconstrained by realpolitik, and it is clear the man is Dave’s twin brother.

    The media behaviour has threatened my hypertension severely! Your title question was put direct by one simple-minded BEEB reporter. The poor girl answering didn’t know how to respond. Such questions are ideologically biased and part of the attempt by the rightwing to redefine the general understanding of ‘fairness’. It is an attempt to change public discourse and it is not new. Prescott did it, only his example was a bus driver. The correct response is probably something like ‘if you break a leg on the way home why should I pay for your treatment?’

    I fear I may not outlive the Welfare State.

  • lushd says:

    Why should a postman pay for your education? Because one day the postman may require the services of a doctor, lawyer, nurse, teacher, accountant, social worker, police officer, paramedic and so on. And said postman, as he goes under the knife, sends children to school, buys a house or whatever it is that requires the services of a professional will want to know that these people are well trained and can be trusted.

    David Cameron is right – we are all in this together. A well educated society benefits everyone who belongs to it. That’s why we should all contribute to the cost. It’s not just about the eventual salary of the person taking the degree.

  • CrewsControl says:

    Is it any surprise that a Government whose leading members were privately educated should view payment for education as the most natural thing in the world? After all if your parents spend £30,000 a year (payable in advance for Oppidans) to educate you at Eton then £27,000 for a University education (repayable over 30 years and only once a threshold income is exceeded) probably seems like a jolly good bargain. It appears many leading Lib/Dems have been persuaded to concur. The really depressing aspect of these developments for me is that we (the British electorate) have been voting for this neo-liberal capitalist approach to our economy and provision of public services for the past 30 years. The state we find ourselves in isn’t the result of a fluke general election result but the steady move over the course of 8 general elections to our present position. Once University tuition fees were introduced all political arguments, on funding for education, were ones of degree (no pun intended) not kind; and the principle of free education was conceded. Remember that slogan from the Thatcher years? ‘If you think Education is expensive; try Ignorance’; well maybe we soon will be. A famous UCL alumnus, Gandhi, said “A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people”. In a democracy we get the governments we deserve.
    Why should the postman pay for your education? Quite, simply because an informed and educated electorate are likely to make better decisions in the ballot box in selecting a party to govern. And the administration that takes the reins of power is likely to have significant effect on the life of the postman and his family.

  • Ravi says:

    Thanks for another interesting article. Your comments about a review of post 18 education are indeed apposite but this has failed to happen for a long time and I do not hear the Universities leading the call. Following your emails’ other link provides ample examples of how the universities are their own worst enemy in this regard.

    I would take issue with the way you, and most every other commentator has sought to sex up the debate by bringing in every issue under the sun (primary selection is a travesty but another travesty altogether).

    As Majiktyse points out, the world has changed. A tenfold increase in student numbers requires that the funding model has to change as well.

    Students have changed too – they expect accommodation with en-suite facilities, they drive cars, have flat-screen TVs, laptops and smart-phones. It follows that they have large debts after university. This is a generational thing – debt is normal in the same way as it was anathema to my grandparents.

    As with all surveys the trick to getting the answer you want is to get the question right. Go back and ask the postman whether she is happy to fund Medicine, Nursing etc and she’ll say yes. Suggest Media studies and Golf-course design and I suspect it’s a no. And why should she? (trouble is Integrated Health will probably illicit a yes too).

    Oh, and rich people and their children will always fair better so don’t be surprised that this is the case in education.

  • @Ravi

    I’m not sure what other “issues” you think that I brought in to “sex-up the debate”.

    I do agree that universities have been very dozey about thinking of ways of dealing with large intakes, and keep saying so, e.g http://www.dcscience.net/?p=3564

    Your point about students expecting flat screen TVs is entirely irrelevant. Living costs like that are an extra expense/debt, above the tuition fees that I was talking about. Neither is it entirely true. Most student accommodation is not en suite, and most students have not got a car.

    In fact I was talking primarily not about tuition fees, but about public support for university teaching. The only reason for thee huge tuition fees is that public support for teaching of humanities has almost vanished, and a big reduction for science too.

    I guess at this stage, I’d settle for the present fees. Some contribution seems fair as long as it’s not up front. I don’t believe that times have changed sufficiently that teaching of humanities has to be essentially privatised.

    Your last paragraph is doubtless true, but I’m not yet old enough or cynical enough to use it as a basis for setting policy.

  • Tony Gardner-Medwin says:

    It is depressing that so much protest seems to ignore the complex but all-important facts of what the government is proposing. I tried to understand and set these out for distribution to the UCL occupation (on 30 Nov), but have had no response other than the implicit one of their declining to accept a comment with the link to this analysis on their (now defunct) website. I present this in the form of a simple challenge, whether one would be more or less outraged if the government were proposing to shift in the opposite direction, from the new scheme (higher fees and more progressive payment) to the current one. Look at the figures and decide for yourself. Admittedly, the comparison depends strongly on issues about how the schemes will handle future inflation – still an important focus for argument, I think. But it does seem to make a nonsense of the simplistic claims that this takes away subsidised education, or should deter children from poor families from going to university. If the shift were from the new to the current scheme, the ones to celebrate would be those expecting a high income wrought through their education, and wealthy parents who would pay the fees whatever and would pay less.

  • @Tony

    I think you are making the same mistake as most other commentators, by focussing on the repayment mechanism.

    The first thing to be discussed should be the extent to which teaching of science and humanities should receive public support. Once you have decided that, you can decide on the level of fees, and, lastly, on the repayment mechanism.

    The repayment mechanism is indeed quite fair, but for me that isn’t the point.

  • Tony Gardner-Medwin says:

    But science and humanities will receive public support through the provision of funds for these fees. The repayment mechanism is key, because it reduces the extent to which anticipated future earnings need to be taken into account in deciding what, whether and where to study. The big change is that universities will have to look harder at the motivations and needs of the students through whom their funds are channelled – no bad thing.

  • charlestonjigger says:

    I think before you look at funding there has to be honesty with young people as to what University is for.

    I guess its too late now but why have we allowed business interests to dictate to higher education? This seems to be based on perceived needs that you bet they will alter at the drop of a hat. We are told the country needs scientists? For what? maybe 10 years ago but that is not the case now.

    If they needs skills shouldn’t they be training themselves? The joke is that ask any graduate what problem it is they face and they will tell you it is lack of ‘experience’.

    I think Universities are happy to play on the idea that a degree leads to social mobility and a stable future because of their own self interest. But I dont really blame them, they held their part of the bargain and did the educating while the economy did not.

    Lets go back to the idea that University is a place where you can be educated to the highest level, but now it isn’t really going to fundamentally change your future. If young people still want in after being truthful with them, fine.

    Here is an interesting article about the state of science careers in the US:


    I wonder if having an academic career is any different from wanting to be a rock star or a footballer! Pie-in-the-sky!

  • charlestonjigger says:

    So i guess the point im trying to make is when you say that some subjects are strategically important for the economy and some aren’t you end up with the humanities situation. Even though the outcomes are probably the same.

  • @Tony Gardner-Medwin
    You are, essentially, advocating privatisation of higher education, particularly for humanities, on the assumption that the market will solve all problems (well all apart from wider participation).

    That is what was said when banks were deregulated by first Thatcher, then Gordon Brown. It very obviously didn’t work.

  • […] Times Higher Education published today a version of an earlier post on this blog, Why should a postman pay for your university education?. […]

  • Tony Gardner-Medwin says:

    @David (24/12/10 post) I can’t leave this unchallenged, even though I have only seen it late. Am I really hearing the champion of evidence-based medicine saying that since banks received syrup of competition and then practised dark and dangerous arts, behind a cloak of incomprehension and commercial secrecy, therefore competition in universities for the ambitions and enthusiasms of state-supported students (yes, state-supported) would be poison? What kind of argument is that? I have greater faith that universities, properly motivated, can solve “all problems” (including wider participation) than that governments can. Let’s get on with trying. I don’t happen to agree with your particular proposal to turn all undergraduate programmes into post A-level extensions of school – but there are many ways (some of which I have indeed, as you know, tried to pioneer) to use the inspirational expertise of researchers more efficiently and effectively without banishing it to the post-graduate education of a few.

  • @Tony Gardner-Medwin

    Where on earth did I ever say that competition between universities was bad? It has always existed and its inevitable. And it isn’t what I was talking about. I think you are erecting a straw man.

    I was talking about how you organise and finance universities and I need to because the ‘leaders’ of universities have resolutely resisted making any proposals that would change much the status quo.

    What you haven’t done is to answer the critical question. Do you really think it is possible to find a five-fold increase in good researchers to match the five-fold increase in the number of undergraduates? I don’t believe it is possible and even if it were, where will you get the five-fold increase in the number of research grants that would be needed to keep then in research? It would require either a big increase in state funding of research as well as teaching, or an enormous increase in fees. The ideology of the present government has given us the latter, and it hasn’t even saved any money.

    It would be wonderful if we could solve these problems, but the numbers just don’t add up. What I propose is not vastly different from what happens in the USA and I don’t notice that their science has suffered from it.

  • Tony Gardner-Medwin says:

    Markets are places where buyers and sellers compete. Since universities need money and students will be the bearers of money lent or given to them by the state, it is markets and competition that we shall have. You seemed to dislike the idea, supposedly because banks were allowed to compete too freely and went crazy.

    I don’t propose multiplying the number of researchers, but rather ensuring that university research carries with it (as it used to more) the expectation of substantial interaction with students who compete for entry to their inspiring but demanding, hopefully efficient and doubtless more expensive institutions. An equilibrium needs to evolve in which these complement institutions providing cheaper degrees and training, more of the sort you envisage. A valuable feature in the USA is I think a much greater facility to move with credits between institutions and to intermit between courses. Students should not be at university unless they feel in control, believing in and seeking what they want. That – in my view – is the change around age 18, and the difference between school and uni.

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