Meet the Yorkshire students and 'Blair babies' who feel 'golden age' of university has failed them

When Tony Blair outlined his dream for Britain’s schools and universities in his landmark speech to the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool in 1996, it was students like Emily Moore that he believed had most to benefit from the radical plans.

Famously telling delegates that New Labour’s three main priorities were “education, education, education”, he talked about breaking down “class divides” and “delivering excellence to all”.

He perhaps unsurprisingly didn’t mention that this vision would in part be funded by the introduction of university tuition fees, one of Blair’s first acts when he became Prime Minister the following year.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Almost three decades on, for 22-year-old Emily, a final year student at the University of Leeds, the higher education system seems more divided than ever.

Jack Gamble campaigns to save arts and humanities courses from cutsJack Gamble campaigns to save arts and humanities courses from cuts
Jack Gamble campaigns to save arts and humanities courses from cuts

“We are paying more than ever for a degree, but seem to be getting less and less back,” she said.

“I am from Oldham, I went to state school and I qualify for the maximum maintenance loan. University felt like an opportunity, but a lot of my school friends looked at the finances and decided they couldn’t afford to go.

“The changes that have been made in the last 30 years were supposed to make university more accessible, but there are a record number of students reliant on food banks and I have had to work throughout my time at university just to make ends meet.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“That’s fine if you feel you are getting a first class experience, but unfortunately that’s not been the case.”

Emily studied at the University of SheffieldEmily studied at the University of Sheffield
Emily studied at the University of Sheffield

When she graduates with a degree in politics this summer, Emily, who is also the Leeds delegate to the National Union of Students, will have paid £37,000 in tuition fees – a figure she struggles to see as value for money.

“The quality of teaching has been great, but at the most I have only had five hours of lectures a week and the pastoral care has been pretty poor.

“I tried to access some support in my first year after losing a close family member, but the backlog was so huge I just gave up. Universities entice you in with the promise that they are going to nurture you, but the reality is that they don’t have the money to deliver on them.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“There are so many things I have loved about university, but I can’t think of any other training where you would pay so much.

NUS rep Emily Moore is at University of LeedsNUS rep Emily Moore is at University of Leeds
NUS rep Emily Moore is at University of Leeds

“Something has to change, because this current system is unsustainable and it’s in danger of letting down the very students it should be supporting most.”

It is a complaint which is echoed on university campuses across Yorkshire, and yet on paper educational standards have improved. In 1996, Britain was ranked 35th in the world league of education standards – today it is 13th. However, for the most disadvantaged students, the current university system feels less than inclusive.

Since the abolition of maintenance grants in England, students from lower income backgrounds have been leaving university with the highest levels of debt. New analysis by London Economics for the Sutton Trust estimates that poorer students graduate with £60,100 of debt, 38 per cent higher than the £43,600 for those from wealthier families, with the gap largely driven by the need to take out maintenance loans.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

For increasing numbers of students, the sums no longer add up. Emily Procter, a third year student at the University of Sheffield, is currently working on her final assessment which involves explaining the key lessons learnt in British politics over the last 25 years in just 2,500 words.

It is a tough ask, but an arguably tougher question would be to explain where the £27,750 she has paid in tuition fees has gone.

Originally from London, the 23-year-old admits she has fallen in love with Sheffield, but with just four hours of contact teaching time a week as she comes to the end of her degree course, she is struggling to see the value for money.

Emily told The Yorkshire Post: “It does sometimes feel that the only thing I have got in return for all that money is access to a library.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“The lecturers have been great – I’m not blaming them, but something is really wrong with the current system, it needs a complete overhaul. The sector has become a victim of marketisation. Everything is about making a profit and that’s really problematic.”

The increasing reliance on overseas students – as a non-UK undergraduate Emily would have been charged £22,680 a year for the same course – has provided a vital revenue stream but with the number of foreign students in decline the model now looks unsustainable.

She added: “Courses which don’t automatically lead to a graduate job, such as English literature or classical civilisation, become more difficult to sell and that’s really sad. University should be about the pursuit of knowledge not the pursuit of a top salary.

“The other issue is that student loans are not being paid back. The Government needs to abolish tuition fees and accept that it should be funding university education and funding it properly. They have tried another way and it hasn’t worked.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Those working within the sector fear that the financial crisis is already putting groundbreaking research under threat.

According to the Russell Group, which represents 24 universities, including Leeds, Sheffield and York, in 2014/15 UK universities spent £2.9 billion subsidising research programmes, but the figure rose to £5 billion in 2021/22. Add in the £2,500 subsidy needed on average to support each student each year, and it is clear why many believe the current funding model is broken.

A Russell Group spokesperson said: “Universities work to run as efficiently as possible, but if nothing changes it is inevitable the combined pressures many are facing will impact on quality and choice for students.

“This is at a time when the country urgently needs to maintain a varied and high-quality education offer if we are to fill vital skills shortages, support the NHS, and drive national growth.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“This is why we need a joined-up approach to support the financial resilience of the sector.

“We are keen to work with the Government to develop a sustainable funding model for higher education that is fair, affordable and protects a vital pipeline of skills.”

Mr Blair ended his 1996 speech confidently ushering in a new age of achievement. However, as universities face their worst funding crisis in living memory, many fear that that age may be short-lived.

xhead in here

Fears have been raised that ongoing funding cuts to creative degree subjects are in danger of creating a lost generation who have little access to the arts.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

While the bulk of university funding comes through tuition fees, the Government also makes a contribution to support the teaching of high cost subjects, ones which require specialist equipment or facilities, through the Office of Students.

However, in the last four years, arts subjects have seen this funding stream slashed by 50 per cent while high cost STEM subjects have seen an increase in financial support.

The director and CEO of Campaign for the Arts, Jack Gamble, said: “Up until 2021 most arts subjects were categorised as high cost because you can’t say teach dance without a decent studio or fine art without the right resources.

“However, three years ago, the Government made a new category, separating arts from STEM subjects and imposing a 50 per cent funding cut.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“This has not only had an impact financially, but symbolically it says ‘we don’t value the arts’.”

The initial cuts were made by the then-Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, but his successor, Gillian Keegan, remains committed to the cutbacks.

Earlier this month, she told the OfS to again freeze grants intended to meet the extra costs of offering music, drama, fashion degrees.

In 2020-21 the grant was worth £36 million, but the latest decision means that in 2024/25 the top-up funding for creative and performing arts courses will again be just £16.7 million.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Mr Gamble added: “At the same time the Government is putting an extra £18 million of OfS funding into courses such as medicine and further cementing the gap between the arts and science.

“This is not just putting degree courses at risk, but it is also damaging the pipeline of talent leading from higher education into the creative industries, which are worth £111 billion a year to the UK economy.

“The arts aren’t a luxury – they are a necessity. However successive Education Secretaries have shown that they are intent on attacking the future of UK arts and the creative potential of the next generation.”