When I started at University College, Durham University in 1993, one of the more drunken fresher's week nights resulted in me and my friends witnessing a group second year "rahs" (short-hand for Hoorah Henry), throwing copper coins down onto the cobbled street below, amidst shrill cries of "pennies for the poor". It is hard to think of a worse case of 'gown' insulting 'town'.
The reason I mention this is that it sprung to mind when I read of the Coalition's recent fop to the Lib Dems - the claim that 18,000 of the most deprived university students will ave their tuition fees paid by the Government for two years. This ploy is designed to allow Clegg and co. to claim that the policy of making students pay for their higher eduction is somehow socially progressive because of the assistance that is offered to those at the bottom of the proverbial heap. It would be like the assertion that a hospital which charged most of patients was somehow socially progressive because it didn't charge a few paupers.
Could a private general hospital (thankfully we don't have such monstrosities here, as they do in the US) be regarded as socially 'progressive' for bestowing some of its wondrous services on the needy - pennies for the poor - or should the concept of charity or fairness go beyond the mere offering of assistance to some, and look at wider principles?
And so it is with the offer by the Government to pay the fees of the 18,000 'lucky' students. It appears, on the surface, a 'socially progressive' measure, as is the raising of the threshold at which graduates must repay their debt from £15k to £21k. But this is at best window dressing, and at worst a deliberately misleading ruse. For the paying of fees for 18,000 is but a drop in the ocean, but pennies from on high. Out of the record 482,000 university students enrolled in 2010, 18,000 represents 3%. If someone were to tell me as I drove my young daughter to casualty, that I had a 3% chance that the hospital may decide to treat her for free, I doubt I would be much impressed by this indication of the benevolence of the socially progressive government.
The Lib Dems campaigned noisily in the 2010 General Election for more honesty in politics. So let's just be honest about tuition fees shall we? A socially progressive policy would be one which sought to ensure that there was equality of opportunity for students at age 18 as they decided upon first, whether to go to university and second, which. Anything which makes students from less well-off backgrounds have any doubt about whether they or their families can afford to attend university is socially regressive, not progressive. Labour sadly broke the bond which society previously had with its young people that if they succeeded at school they would be supported through university. This government has not merely opened the door a little further, it has kicked it down.
'Pennies for the poor' in previous centuries may well have helped feed a few poor people and assuaged the guilt of the well-off. But such 'charity' was opposed then and should be opposed now for being no more than a token, designed not to make society fairer or even to allieviate poverty. The Lib Dems are discovering, much to my amusement, that principles must be fought for and defended - they cannot be paid for with pennies.