Former ministers are among those urging the government not to cut university tuition fees. This would only benefit the future high-earners who will actually pay off their loans (or the moneyed parents who pay them off up front).
Such are the counter-intuitive arguments deployed when government junks the principle of publicly funded universality in the cause of commodifying tertiary education.
We are also assured that high tuition fees do not deter lower-income students anyway. Certainly, there is no shortage of budding undergraduates pitching to study law.
So what’s the problem? Whether fees deter the less privileged is a moot point – and hardly a clincher anyway. Nowadays, acquiring a college degree is a prerequisite for most clerical jobs. Cash-strapped young adults who aspire to a white-collar career have little choice but to accrue the huge financial burden a degree confers.
Less remarked upon are the knock-on effects for later life, such as trying to service hefty loans at a time when family and housing costs are at their most pressing. Mortgage lenders must consider repayment capacity, for example; and debt constrains saving for a deposit.
Commentators who focus on the narrow issue of lifetime affordability neglect the bigger picture, too. Loading up the young with debt is an insidious (if inadvertent) form of social engineering.
High student debt inhibits risk-taking – it is a break on freedom. In the law, as in other professions, entrants concerned about their indebtedness will look for the job that pays best rather than the job they want to do and are best suited for. ‘In the process,’ as the laconic dramatist Alan Bennett once put it in a similar context, ‘whole lifetimes are thrown away’.
Apprenticeships and the new ‘super-exam’ are well-intentioned efforts to boost diversity, but many observers remain sceptical. Evidence is growing that the middle-classes are hoovering up the best apprenticeships and concerns persist that hefty fees for the new super-exam could actually make the law even more exclusive.
A profession which affects to take the class ceiling seriously must tackle the ‘entrenched mindsets’ that inhibit meaningful progress and prove the doubters wrong.