It’ll all end in tiers

Higher education in Britain is in a rut. The post war revolution in access has left behind an effective but dreary monoculture. The end result of 50 years of hopeful and humane reform is that now all middle and upper class kids go to university while the rest of the population graduates from school direct to the call centre. All universities are the same and all students aspire to little more than a quiet life (student activism amounts to a giant cry of ‘leave us alone!’). Change is needed if we’re to recover the variety, energy and general bolshiness of earlier eras and to guarantee the creativity and ambition needed to thrive in the post-call centre world.

Meanwhile, the lumpen tribe of 140-ish 160 middle-British Labour MPs who’ve mobilised against top-up fees (plus the opportunists on the other benches), terrorised by their over-indulged middle class constituents (I can almost feel the heat in the server room over at Fax Your MP), are required to roll out dead-from-the-neck-up 70s dogma about ‘two-tier’ education and the supposed working class dread of debt (What dread? Non-mortgage debt in the UK is running at an average of £8,000 per household). What British higher education needs is more tiers – tier upon tier of happily divergent provision from independently-minded and inventive universities – but the dogmatists can see no merit in diversity of provision, in promoting educational and research excellence or in any kind of autonomy for the universities themselves.

They would have us believe that our fate under top-up fees is to look more like the American system. The American education system has many problems but tiers aren’t one of them. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more accessible, diverse and vigorous education system than the US universities. America’s problems are more basic –? the approximately forty percent of the population whose poverty denies them access to the social mainstream completely – let alone to university – for instance.

Britain starts in a better place –? a relatively prosperous economy, a well-integrated population with low levels of exclusion and an excellent and conscientious educational base. If we’re going to do well in the increasingly gnarly global economy we need to get started with reform of higher education now. Bring on the tiers.