I should have been a carpenter, not a headteacher. I would of course have been awful at the job, unable to use a chisel or saw without doing myself a serious injury. However, that is what my family history had prepared me for. My grandfather was a ship’s carpenter, working on the light ships for Trinity House. Unlike me, he was a master craftsman, able to work minor miracles with his carvings in wood. The only reason that I did not follow him into a trade I was spectacularly unsuited for was through the happy accident of having parents who believed in the transforming power of education.

From an early age my mother decided that I was going to go to university – not an easy aspiration for the family to realise in lots of ways. I can still recall the discussion among the family as to how we were going to pay for my visits to the universities that had invited me for an interview. When I told my father that the list of interviews included places such as Newcastle (a considerable way from the family home in Liverpool) he got up and walked out of the house. ‘Oh well,’ I thought, ‘that’s the end of that’. Instead, he came back an hour later with £100 in his hands, thanks to a sympathetic and very understanding bank manager. I don’t care what anyone says about bankers, from that day onwards the Liverpool branch of NatWest has had a special place in my heart.

It might have been difficult initially, but once I made it to Sheffield University to read English Literature I entered what I suspect will come to be seen as a world of untold privilege. The state met my tuition fees and also provided a grant for me to live on. Even more priceless, by paying for my education they enabled me to break the rules of class and social position that for centuries would have dictated my future. These rules stated that you knew your place and did the same job that your family had always done, whether that meant working in the factory, going down the mine or, yes, working as a carpenter. The possession of a degree in English literature was something that used to be unknown for someone from my background and it gave my life a completely different trajectory.

A bleaker future

Why so much sentiment about three years at Sheffield University? I suppose I am looking back in anguish at a set of experiences that seem likely to be denied to my children’s generation. Whereas my family anguished about a £100 loan to pay for travel to a set of interviews, the next generation of students are set to pick up a tab which could grow to £60,000 or more. Rather than setting up young people for life, the cost of a university degree looks set to be a millstone around the necks of young people that will effectively last until they are drawing their pension.

It is hard to know where to start in explaining what is wrong with the current proposals to allow universities to charge up to £9,000 a year for tuition fees. Let me pluck three obvious objections from the many that come so readily to mind.

Firstly, the proposal shows no concept of how many ordinary working people regard debt. In my family the prospect of taking on such a huge loan, even when adjusted for prices in the 1970s, would have made higher education unthinkable, either for myself or for my brother and sister. I learnt at my mother’s knee that borrowing money was just a way to store up trouble for the future. Along with alcohol and fast women, it was consigned to the list of topics about which I received dark and not very coded warnings at regular intervals as I grew up.

Whatever the complicated measures that have been put in place to make university education ‘progressive’ and to reduce the amount paid by those from poorer backgrounds, just the prospect of taking on such a huge loan will be enough to put many off. I think back to the pain involved in borrowing £100 to get to university interviews – the prospect of myself or my parents borrowing thousands more would have been completely unthinkable.

Secondly, the concept of high fees is often justified by the platitude that it provides an opportunity for young people to ‘invest in their future’, as if taking a degree was a step that only provided benefits to the individual concerned. I would like to think that when the state paid for my degree 30 years ago, it was not only doing me a favour, it was also making an investment in its own future. By providing me with the educational tools to pursue what I have always regarded as a genuine vocation in teaching, they were also doing something that I hope has made a difference to the students that I have worked with.

Breaking a contract

My experience only provides one narrow example. Can we really say that entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists, nurses and social workers are using their degrees solely for their own benefit? In lots of different ways the nation derives huge benefit from the skills and experiences that higher education has enabled them to develop. In the past that shared benefit was recognised by the state making its own contribution to the cost of a degree. Now we appear to be saying that young people should pay all of the cost, while society still enjoys some of the potential benefit. An unspoken contract, based upon the mutual gain that the individual and the state derive from education, is in the process of being broken.

Lastly, these new arrangements create an uncomfortable feeling of ‘do as I say, not as I did’. Those who have benefited massively from the free higher education provided by the state are now turning around to the next generation and in effect saying ‘this was a wonderful experience for me, but we have decided that you should be treated differently’.

At a stroke, those behind the new proposals appear to have decided to chop down the educational ladder that they and many others climbed up. While this cannot justify the rioting on the streets that we recently witnessed on our television screens, it leaves a feeling of unease and injustice that does not fit with any moral framework that I can think of.

As a headteacher of a school with a sixth form of 350, I am already receiving guidance on how to ‘promote’ the new system of fees to my students, along with advice that it is my duty to ‘sell’ the new deal, since it is the least worst of the different alternatives that were put forward. I must admit to feeling an ethical dilemma over this.

Of course it is right to continue to encourage students to aspire to higher education. In our school we are very proud of establishing an ethos within which students are ‘expected’ to progress on to university, encouraging them to aim high because it is part of the culture within the school. We have found that for those who are the first in their family to access higher education this culture has been crucial. Students progress and aspire because it is what they see their peers doing, not just because of special programmes or focused interventions.

A system of division

I have grave concerns that our new system of high fees will radically undermine this culture. Quite reasonably, students will ask themselves if it is worth progressing to university and as a result entering into a lifetime of debt. Peer pressure to succeed and progress may well be replaced by a system that divides students into two groups: those who already have a lot and are able to progress and those who have less and so are unable to use education to change their life chances.

Can I really ‘promote’ this system to my students as the best solution available in the circumstances? I think that I can emphasise the positive elements of the scheme, such as the fact that it only requires repayments when income reaches more than £21,000 and writes off the debt 30 years after graduation. I can also share with my students information about the way in which having a degree significantly boosts a person’s lifetime earning potential. I can even tell them about the difference that having a degree made to my life and aspirations. However, what I cannot and will not do is tell my students that I agree with a system of fees that appears so profoundly misguided.

It is fair to ask the question what would I do instead? Noone is disputing that the nation is facing a huge deficit as the result of the financial crisis. Doesn’t this mean that we all need to make sacrifices, including those who aspire to go on to university? My answer would be that life is about choices. If as a nation we believe in the power of education, particularly the power of education to break the shackles of social class and poverty, then we have to put our money where our mouth is.

Benefiting the nation

Surely it is reasonable to suggest that one of our national priorities should be that we spend some of our wealth investing in a higher education system which benefits the entire nation? What we cannot do is preach about the transformational power of education and then effectively mortgage the future of our children and the generations that follow them. If that is not a betrayal, I am struggling to think what is.

Words cannot express what an awful carpenter I would have been. Even now I shudder to think of the Ikea flatpacks that would fail to fit together if they were exposed to my handiwork. Just the idea of me fixing something or carrying out some DIY is enough to reduce my wife and children to roars of hysterical laughter. How wonderful that generations of DIY enthusiasts have been saved from what I might have done. Even more wonderful is the fact that thanks to education my life has taken a different turn, and that I am instead able to take on a job which I love. However, I worry that I will come to be seen as one of the lucky ones, someone who took his chance before the money ran out.

When I started my headship 12 years ago the slogan was ‘education, education, education.’ Suddenly it feels like an awfully long time ago. In late 2010 the talk is of austerity, deficit reduction and cutbacks. I hope that there is still time to think again about tuition fees, before as a nation we make a terrible mistake that we may never be able to explain to our children.

Tuition fees

  • The independent Browne review of student finance conducted during the autumn of 2010 recommended that universities should be able to charge students what they like for tuition. The government has rejected this, with Nick Clegg describing himself as ‘uneasy’ about removing all limits on tuition fees.
  • At the time of going to press, university tuition fees were capped at £3,290. The government had not yet voted on whether to raise the cap (this vote was due to take place on 8 December).
  •  The government is, however, proposing to raise the cap to £9,000 for some courses, with most courses costing £6,000.
  • Under the new proposals, graduates will start to repay the cost of their degrees when they start to earn £21,000.
  • Other matters relating to changes in higher education will be considered in early 2011 when ministers are expected to publish a white paper on the futureof universities.

Dr Peter Kent is headteacher of Lawrence Sheriff School Rugby and a national leader of education