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Pocketmags Digital Magazines
Pocketmags Digital Magazines

Debt and gratitude

An ex-minister’s love letter to universities offers an optimistic verdict, finds Howard Davies

Student fees have a nasty way of exploding in the faces of politicians. The question of whether to introduce them in England and Wales in the first place was so hot that John Major tossed it to the other side of the 1997 election, and a few years later, in 2004, the issue provoked the biggest backbench rebellion against Tony Blair on the home front. In 2015, fees all but destroyed Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems.

Although for a time it looked as though the controversy had died down, last summer it began to smoulder alarmingly once more, when Jeremy Corbyn made the abolition of fees the centrepiece of his election campaign. And with a review recently promised by the government, university funding looks as if it might go up in flames once again— with outrage about extravagant vice-chancellors’ pay adding even more fuel to the fire.

All of which means that it is interesting to hear from David Willetts, who as minister for higher education virtually tripled the amount that students paid from £3,000 to nearly £9,000 per year, a major reason for much of this latter-day discontent. Though he has recently argued elsewhere that the 3 per cent real-terms interest rate on student loans should be dropped, Willetts’s book produces the most articulate defence of the scheme I have read (more of which later). But it would be wrong to see A University Education as merely a tract about student fees. The author has many other fish to fry. Nor is this primarily a political memoir; despite the fact that he has been intimate with some of the highest reaches of government, Willetts has always been more interested in policy analysis than in party politics.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s February 2018 issue: John Naughton, James Ball, Yuan Ren, Hannah Jane Parkinson and Houman Barekat outline the ways in which our lives are controlled by big tech giants. Naughton argues that Facebook and Google have created a new “surveillance capitalism” in which they battle to grow user engagement of their products and monetise our lives for their own gain as they do so. The cover package also explores how “bots,” fake social media accounts, influenced the US presidential vote and the Brexit referendum as well as the effects of removing net neutrality in the US. Elsewhere in the issue: Samira Shackle asks what happens to ordinary civilians affected by Islamic State as they attempt to move back to their homes and rebuild their lives; Shahidha Bari asks whether we can continue to appreciate the work of actors, filmmakers and writers who have been disgraced; and Christine Ockrent profiles Michel Barnier.