In response to the controversial Browne report, the article that follows was published today in the Belfast Telegraph. Francis Beckett, as can be expected by anyone who's familiar with Francis and his work, has much to say about the topic for which he is known for his expertise. Francis is the author of two books that concern both the success of schools and the betrayal of the baby boomers on the generations that succeed them.

The Browne report signals the end of free higher education

Born in 1948, the author of yesterday’s report recommending higher student fees, Lord Browne, is a full paid up baby boomer – a member of the post war baby boom. His sixties student days at St Johns College, Cambridge, came free, courtesy of the taxpayer.

By and large, taxpayers – men and women of an earlier generation, did not mind too much, because it was a symbol of the post-1945 political philosophy which believed higher education should be a universal right, and not just for those who could afford it, as it had been in the thirties.

When Lord Browne was a student, only about ten per cent of the population had higher education – it is over a third now. But a real effort was being made to ensure that it was not just a perk of the rich, as it had been in the thirties and forties.

In the sixties, for the first time, proletarian and regional accents were heard throughout the British university system, and (except in a few ancient institutions) their owners were no longer made to feel out of place. We (for I, too, went to university in the sixties) grew up at the time when – as he famously told the Labour Party conference – Neil Kinnock was “the first Kinnock in 1,000 generations” to have a university education. The idea that one might have to pay for education, at any level, seemed to us primitive.


In the sixties and the seventies, the baby boomers fought for greater freedom from financial worry, which meant higher student grants. We took it for granted that we did not have to worry about paying for our tuition. In 1975, Charles Clarke, president of the National Union of Students, was leading huge marches of students through central London demanding higher grants.

In 1997, the first baby boomer Prime Minister, Tony Blair, walked into Number Ten. From that moment, free higher education was doomed. We did not know it at the time – we thought the first Labour government for 18 years would make the system better for students who did not come from wealthy homes. And if anyone had told us that the Education Secretary who wielded the axe would be Charles Clarke, we would have laughed in their face. But it was.

It was the baby boomers in government who took away from future generations the freedom from worry and debt that we had demanded for ourselves. We were told at the time that the fees would be capped to limit the burden of debt they would create. But by then, most of us baby boomers were middle-aged and cynical, and knew that come the first sign of real economic difficulty, the door had been opened for students to pay the full cost of their university education, just as they used to in the thirties. And, just as it used to be in the thirties, universities would once again become the preserve of the wealthy.

The crisis is here, and there is a baby boomer ready finally to pull up the ladder that we baby boomers climbed. Lord Browne's report calls for the £3,290 cap on fees to be scrapped. Instead it proposes a free market in fees, and charges of up to £12,000 a year for a degree course. The posher the university, the bigger the fees. A few working class children may still get into former polytechnics, mainly to do vocational courses, but Lord Browne will be able to go to reunions at St John’s College feeling fairly certain that he won’t meet any of the hoi polloi among the students there.

There are a few figleaves. There always are. For example, under Lord Browne’s scheme, students only start paying back when their income reaches £21,000. None of it makes any difference. We are already hearing young people say they are not going to university because they do not want to be saddled with a mountain of debt. Now many more will be saying it.

Who will benefit from Lord Browne’s report? Employers will. Comfortable folk in late middle age, who have spent long careers working their way up the greasy pole to the dizzy heights of chairman of BP will find a young workforce far better suited to their needs. Universities, said Lord Browne, should be forced to publicise the employment rates of graduates, so that they can be judged on how far they meet the needs of companies like BP. Unversities can be forced to train for industry, rather than educate for life. “Employers report that many graduates lack the skills they need to improve productivity”, said Lord Browne’s report.

Of course the baby boomers, when they were young students, demanded, and got, a much better and more civilised deal. But that was then. This is now.

Francis Beckett's books How to Create A Successful School and What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us? are available here and here for £14.99 and £12.99, respectively.