Top British playwright Alan Bennett has expressed his deep concerns that the introduction of £9000 tuition fees next year will prevent budding writers and intellectuals from working-class backgrounds from managing to attend university. Bennett was speaking on a visit to his old school in Leeds, where a new library was being named in his honour. Bennett, a butcher’s son, attended the school when it was a state grammar, then made his way to a tuition fee-free Oxford University before starting his writing career.
However, Bennett warned in his comments at the school that such opportunities would now be closed to talented students from poor backgrounds, precluding others like him from following a similar path. He focused particularly on the tragedy that young writers with great talent would no longer be able to manage to attend top universities like Oxford and Cambridge where their talent would be nurtured. Asked if he himself would have managed to launch his prestigious career without the education he received, he answered that it would almost certainly never have happened, adding “one dreads to think where one would have ended up”.
The government has stressed that new, trebled tuition fees should not deter poorer students from university, because payment is deferred and they will not have to pay back their loans until they are earning a high enough income. But many commentators have stressed the unwillingness of students from disadvantaged backgrounds to take on the burden of such an enormous debt, regardless of the terms attached. The figures alone are enough to deter some lower-income families from allowing their children to attend university, many argue, and Bennett agreed that had such fees existed when he was a student, he “absolutely undoubtedly” would not have gone on to higher education.
Another concern is that with rocketing fees, students will feel pushed towards more practical and vocational courses such as medicine and engineering, leaving arts and humanities courses at risk of under-funding and potential collapse. With the certainty of a burden of debt that experts predict could reach £80,000 with interest in real terms, students are far less likely to want to study courses that lead to uncertain employment, such as writing and acting. Bennett lamented the inevitable impact this would have on the next generation of talented artists, pointing out that acting great Albert Finney would never have made it to drama school under the new funding system.
Bennett also attacked the closure of public libraries, describing it as a means of “impoverishing young people.” He pointed out that even now, with tuition fees a third of what they will climb to next year, the intake of our top universities is already “almost wholly middle class”, a situation he described as simply “wrong”.
Bennett is the latest in a long line of prestigious writers, academics and celebrities to criticise the new tuition fees scheme, but with little acknowledgement of the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have raised their voices against the commercialisation of education, the government seems unlikely to shift its stance anytime soon.