Not for the many, but for the privileged few: The paradox of Labour’s university tuition fee pledge

Image: Sussex LRC, Flickr

The Labour party’s manifesto pledge to scrap university tuition fees is a textbook example of the poorly judged politics and misguided policymaking that the Labour leadership has adopted as its modus operandi in recent years. First, the politics. University students are one of the few demographic groups whose votes the Labour party already has in the bag—a recent poll by the Higher Education Policy Institute shows that 55% plan to vote Labour—so it’s unlikely to tangibly improve Labour’s election prospects and regardless, student turnout is usually low. It would be comparable to the Conservative Party offering a tax cut to millionaires… or perhaps even promising to bring back fox hunting.

But it isn’t just poorly thought out from a political point of view, it’s also deeply flawed and regressive from a policy standpoint. Thanks to the way student loan repayments are structured, only the most successful graduates will come close to paying the full price of their tuition. In fact, it is estimated that two-thirds of students will never pay off their debts (which get written off 30 years after graduation).

it isn’t just poorly thought out from a political point of view, it’s also deeply flawed and regressive from a policy standpoint.

Moreover, when the coalition government first lifted the cap on tuition fees in 2012, there were several strings attached. Universities could only raise their fees to £9000 if they demonstrably expanded access to lower income applicants. Partly as a result of the subsequent proliferation of grants and bursaries, children from low-income households are now twice as likely to apply to university than a decade ago.

Now let’s contrast this situation with tuition fee-free Scotland: thanks to the abolition of tuition fees, universities have been forced to cut grants, resulting in top Scottish universities receiving dwindling numbers of applications from state-educated students. And while the proportion of university students from non-professional households has risen steadily in England, it has stagnated north of Hadrian’s Wall. Clearly, then, scrapping tuition fees has helped rich students at the expense of poorer ones.

This begs the question: why is the Labour party—the supposed champions of the working class and scourge of the rich—opting for a policy which offers a juicy hand-out to middle-class graduates? The policy is estimated to cost £10 billion a year, which everyone, even non-graduates, would have to pay. Many would argue that the money would be more effectively spent combatting the ongoing crises in health and social care. In a bizarre reversal of their election slogan, the Labour party is pledging to stand up, not for the many, but for the privileged few.

why is the Labour party opting for a policy which offers a juicy hand-out to middle-class graduates?

I can think of two possible explanations for this paradoxical policy pledge; neither of them reflect well on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. My initial thoughts were that the coterie of hard-line leftists who currently control the party have no conception of how the current student loan system actually works, and therefore have not properly considered the consequences of scrapping tuition fees. Yet, a more cynical view is that the Labour leadership knows exactly what it’s doing with this policy. In a disingenuous act of electioneering, the Labour Party is framing what is actually an incredibly regressive policy as a progressive one, relying on its leader’s socialist credentials and public ignorance of the details of student loan repayments to hide the ugly truth.

Disingenuous electioneering is not the sole remit of the Labour Party, of course. The Conservative Party are equally as guilty. But in a campaign when Labour should at least ostensibly be offering a serious alternative, instead they are adopting the position of the Liberal Democrats in 2010 – focusing solely on ill-conceived and unfunded pledges to shore up their base. The protest of the few comes at the expense of the many.






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