The Independent: Tuition fees, and an Oxford professor’s last lesson

On Saturday I went back to my university for the retirement lunch of one of my tutors, Professor Mark Freedland.  In a 40-year career at St. John’s College, Oxford, Professor Freedland not only earned a reputation as one of the world’s leading academics in the field of labour law, but also found time to teach and mentor many students from a great diversity of backgrounds.  Several of the college’s alumni had driven hundreds of miles to be there, some had flown in from farther afield, and all of us in that hall were overflowing with praise and thanks.

It’s difficult with words to do justice – pun reluctantly intended – to the positive impact that Professor Freedland has had on the lives of countless people, the overwhelming majority of whom he will never meet.  At the same time, his manner was a constant lesson in how to convey authority: calmly, quietly, with dignity.  He is also one of the few people I have met who speaks in prose: before he begins each sentence, you can see him pause briefly to select the ideal words and the perfect order that they will invariably take, like Quincy Jones pondering the final tracklisting for Thriller.

Professor Freedland, it is probably clear by now, is someone for whom I have the greatest respect, and so when he rose to speak I paid close attention to his remarks.  Having kindly thanked us for attending, he reflected humorously on his time as a tutor, and then closed by briefly expressing a wish that the state might, at some point in the future, rethink its decision to raise tuition fees for university students.

For some reason, Professor Freedland’s polite suggestion affected me far more than any passionate polemic that I have thus far heard against the tripling of tuition fees.  I think this is because, until now, I have felt a sense of futility about public protest: a sense that, once a policy is implemented (or, perhaps more accurately, imposed), it is irreversible.  That once rail is privatised, there is no going back: that once healthcare is privatised, there is no going back: that once higher education is no longer subsidised, there is no going back.

But this is wrong: and Professor Freedland was right.  This policy is not irreversible.  That is what U-turns are for.  To raise tuition fees for higher education so dramatically is to make an explicit statement about the type of society that you would like to see.   A society where people, for the mere want of money, are unable to reach their academic potential.  Many people will contend that it is better that the state does not subsidise Mickey Mouse courses for students: in which case, we should fund more and better courses, with more and better supervision of those courses.

This all sounds very simple.  And I think it is, really.  Anyone with children, or anyone – be they sibling, cousin, aunt or uncle – who has ever assumed any responsibility for children, will know the desire to do anything to give them the best possible platform for success in life.  Education is one such platform.  And for all the talk of there being little or no money for such a subsidy, it does seem that the state has been reassuringly good, even in this time of recession, at finding huge sums of money for prestigious events.

This is just a thought, just as Professor Freedland’s comments on this issue were just an afterthought.  I thank him profusely for his last lesson: for reminding me of my idealism that an excellent university education should be affordable to all, and one day will be again.  And if you’re ever walking through Oxford one afternoon, and you’d like to say hi to Professor Freedland, you should look out for him very carefully.  He’s grey-haired, grey-suited and bespectacled; but there are quite a few of those guys about.   To make absolutely sure it’s him, simply strike up a casual conversation, and if he doesn’t pause to punctuate his speech with an “umm” or an “aaah” then you’ve got your man.  If you don’t do that, then you’ll miss him, as the university’s students most surely will.

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