During an election where the Tories wanted talk of policy to be non-existent, and leadership to be scrutinised by the public, it was two policies that ultimately set the tone for the exit poll. One being the so called ‘Dementia Tax’, and the other being Labour’s pledge to abolish University tuition fees, something which was popular with younger voters. Tuition fees were actually introduced by Labour back in 1998 – although they had been on the cards for years, and were introduced a much lower cost than we see now. It was the coalition government of 2010 that tripled fees to 9k a year, and it was the Tory government of 2015 that decided to remove this cap, and scrap maintenance grants for students.
Corbyn’s Labour has had a distinct position on this since day 1; he wants to abolish tuition fees and has also mentioned before, although it’s not policy, that debt for current graduates could also be removed. And one thing it certainly did do, was enthuse younger voters. 16% more 18-25-year olds turned out compared to 2015, and one of the main reasons for this was because of policies they felt they could get behind, this arguably the main one.
There’s no doubt it’s popular, and that is why Labour and Corbyn continue to use it. But just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean it’s right, and it’s clear that abolishing tuition fees would not be a smart move. Firstly, it’s not a cheap pledge. According to Labour’s manifesto, the move would cost £11bn, and if Corbyn were to go ahead with removing debt for graduates, that is estimated to cost up to £100bn, a quite frightening amount. If both Labour and Corbyn are serious about reducing inequality in our society, there are many areas to focus on, and tuition fees are not one.
Let’s not forget also, going to University is a privilege, and should stay that way. Going to University means access to first class lecturers, specialist facilities, and world class resources. Going to university is solely benefitting the student, and is further improving their opportunities from the education they already have. Why shouldn’t students have to pay for this privilege? As highlighted by Hannah Putrus, if you commit to going to higher education, you’re making the conscious decision that the benefits of the degree outweigh the debt that comes with it.
I am in full agreement that tuition fees should be decreased, but scrapping them completely would have a damaging impact on higher education. Firstly, it’s going to eat away at higher education funding, over half of which comes from tuition fees. Where would this lack of funding be made up? Tuition fees also allow for the education budget to be freed up and used in other areas for younger students, and as pointed out by Ben Gartside, it moves us towards a meritocratic system of education – which is a thoroughly socialist principle.
Tuition fees are also not the educational barrier that they are consistently presented to be by Labour, Corbyn, and many on the left. A recent study found that Scottish students (who get free university education) only have a university offer rate of 50% compared to applicants from the rest of the UK (58%), and, in 2015, application rates of 18-year-olds living in disadvantaged areas in all countries of the UK increased to record high levels. In fact, if you abolished fees, it’s likely that we would see a decrease in the number of students being accepted into University, especially those from lower income backgrounds.
What is also often overlooked, is how tuition fee debts are paid back in the long run. Yes, there are issues here that need to be looked at, the main one being the interest added, but overall it works well. Unlike other countries, tuition fees are not paid back until the graduate is earning over 21k, and only 9% of what is earned over this threshold is paid back each month. As well as this, your repayments stop after 30 years, whether you’ve paid the full amount back or not. No matter how much the debt is, you will pay back the same amount because it is a percentage of your earnings. To summarise, it is a tax on earnings, so it is taxing the rich more anyway, so it’s a socialist policy! Removing tuition fees would be helping the richest in our society, not the poorest.
There are big problems and barriers in higher education, but removing tuition fees is the wrong answer to the wrong questions. There are other areas where inequality is setting in, and there are other factors that are preventing students from low incomes going to university, one being maintenance grants. Labour’s manifesto does pledge to bring back these grants, but they still do not deal with the main issue of living costs for students. Many students struggle to pay for rent and food, and many must take on multiple jobs just to cover these costs.
Also, if you are trying to reduce inequality within education, higher education is not the place to act. The largest drop off between the least and most deprived children is between the ages of 3 and 14, and the higher education budget is around double that of pre-school education. Ben Gartside puts forward a tuition fee system where a set percentage of a student’s fee is retained by their university, and a set percentage put towards pre-school education, which I happen to think would be a smart, popular, and a sensible redistributive policy.
It’s understandable why Corbyn and Labour are pressing with such a vote winning policy, but it’s clear from the evidence it’s an unwise move. I do believe that fees should be reduced, grants should be reintroduced on an improved means testing, and more needs to be done to help students with ever increasing living costs. Abolishing fees only helps the richer within our society, and I think we can all agree that extra funding would be better placed in areas such as health, social care, housing, and welfare. That is how inequality is reduced.