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I once marched against tuition fees. Now I can see their worth

There’s plenty to make me cringe when I reminisce about my university days, and it doesn’t stop with my dodgy sense of style. If I’m honest, I feel a little shame-faced about the narrower world view I inhabited back then. One of the ways that manifested itself was the enthusiasm with which I threw myself into campaigning against tuition fees. Then, the government was proposing raising fees from £1,000 to £3,000 a year. Cue much passionate marching in student demos, earnest drafting of student union responses to government white papers, and letter-writing to MPs.

The reason I got so exercised about a fee hike that might seem fairly modest in the context of the £9,000 fees most universities are charging today, was that the university I went to, Oxford, had a big access problem (and indeed still does). Young people from working-class backgrounds were, and are, seriously under-represented. As someone who’d had all the benefits of a middle-class upbringing – including parents who nurtured my aspirations every step of the way – that struck me as deeply unfair, and I got very involved with our student union’s access-widening schemes. I thought higher fees would further discourage any young people who might think university wasn’t for them.

But I’ve changed my mind. Fees are certainly too high (most young people will never pay them back in full, so face what’s effectively a 9% graduate tax on any earnings over the graduate repayment threshold for 30 years after they graduate). But though it’s something the state should subsidise, I now believe it’s right that students who enjoy the benefits of a university education make a contribution towards its costs after they’ve graduated, if their earnings allow them to do so.

What prompted this rethink? It didn’t take me long to realise my world view had been blinkered. Pretty much everyone in my teenage friendship group went to university; when I got there, to the extent that diversity existed it was still a group of people who’d made it to Oxford, albeit sometimes against the odds. It’s mortifying to admit, but I didn’t spend that much time thinking about those who didn’t go to university.

That soon changed. My first job out of university was researching education and social policy; I later became a governor of a school with a very diverse intake, and a trustee of City Year UK, a youth charity that supports young people from a wide range of backgrounds to volunteer in inner-city schools.

I still feel very angry that working-class children remain less likely to go to university than those from more affluent backgrounds. But I woke up to another glaring injustice: the shocking and continuing lack of investment, energy and thought that goes into developing the skills of young people who don’t go to university. And I’ve had to pay heed to the evidence that suggests that increasing headline fees has not, in itself, deterred people from diverse backgrounds going to university (while cuts in support for part-time and mature students certainly have).

Even if we did fix the under-representation of young people from less privileged backgrounds, why should we invest more in those who get better A-level grades? They’re no more deserving. I’ve seen no evidence of a greater social return from the state investing a pound in the skills of those who go to university compared with those who’d benefit from a vocational alternative to a degree. And why should university-attending 18-year-olds get state-subsidised loans to move away from home – with all the social skills and life prep that goes along with that – when young people in other types of training get nothing?

So 15 years later, I no longer support the scrapping of tuition fees. Instead, I want a levelling of the playing field: all young people should get an equitable level of investment in their education after they turn 18. They can choose to put that towards the cost of a university education, and top it up through a post-graduation repayment system (though we should scrap the ridiculous 6% rate of interest). Or they could put it towards a high-quality apprenticeship; or draw down on it for training later in life. We should also reintroduce maintenance grants for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds studying away from home, whether that be for a degree, or another type of vocational course.

Basic human psychology means we’re reluctant to change our minds in the face of new facts, evidence and arguments. We don’t like being proved wrong; I’m as guilty of that as anyone. But I’m aware that when I have had second thoughts about something, it’s been a product of me broadening my horizons: spending time having new experiences, with new people, in new surroundings. So doing more of that is a worthy resolution for 2018.

Sonia Sodha is a Guardian editor and Observer leader writer

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