Alan Bennett warns over tuition fees

Alan Bennett Alan Bennett returned to his old school on Friday to open a library named in his honour

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Playwright Alan Bennett has said budding working-class writers are being blocked from following in his footsteps by university tuition fees.

Bennett, a butcher's son from Leeds, went to Oxford University.

But he said he would not have been able to pay tuition fees, meaning his career would have taken a different path.

Young writers in a similar position have fewer opportunities than he did, he argued on a visit to his old school - Lawnswood, formerly Leeds Modern.

"One dreads to think where one would have ended up," the author and scriptwriter said at the school, where he opened a library named in his honour.

'Middle-class intakes'

He told pupils that he was "really passionate" about free education. He "absolutely undoubtedly" would not have been able to go to university if tuition fees had been in place when he was studying, he said.

Asked whether his career could have followed a similar course if he had not been to university, the History Boys and Talking Heads author replied: "I can't see it would have done."

He added: "I didn't realise then how fortunate I was but soon after I left university I realised I'd been very, very lucky."

Beyond the Fringe (l-r): Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller Alan Bennett (left) found fame with fellow Oxford and Cambridge graduates (l-r) Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller in Beyond the Fringe

Bennett said he feared that tuition fees would widen social divides in the coming years.

"The top league of universities, not just at Oxford and Cambridge, they're almost wholly middle class, their intakes, now, and that's wrong," he said.

The funding situation also made it more difficult for working-class actors to make it to drama school than in previous years, he added.

"You would never get people like Albert Finney going to drama school now, people from a poor background, because they wouldn't be able to afford it."

University tuition fees in England will be increased to up to £9,000 per year from 2012. UK university applications were 13% down at the end of November compared with the same time last year.

But the government has said students do not have to pay tuition charges up front, with more financial support available for those from poorer families and lower monthly loan repayments than under the current system, which are payable only once graduates are in well-paid work.

Oxford University has said it will offer reduced fee levels for students from families earning less than £25,000 per year.

'Short-sighted'

Lawnswood School dedicated its library to the writer after he emerged as a vocal campaigner against public library cuts.

He attended the school in the 1940s, when it was known as Leeds Modern.

The playwright and author said he "loosely" based The History Boys on his experiences at the school and his admission to Oxford.

Plans to shut local libraries were "wrong and very short-sighted", Bennett said, adding: "We're impoverishing young people."

Alongside Stephen Fry and Julian Barnes, he has signed up to contribute to a book to support library campaigners. The Library Book will be published for National Libraries Day on 4 February.

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