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Laurie Penny on rising tuition fees: A breathtaking attack on social mobility

Lifting the cap on tuition fees isn't just an attack on young people -- it's much, much worse than that.

It's worse than we feared. The Browne report, released today, advises the government that the best way to fund a "competitive" higher education system and provide businesses with the goods, services and skills that they require is to replace state funding of higher education with a punitive fees system which is set to triple and or even quadruple the amount that British students have to pay to attend university. This provides the coalition with all the excuse it needed to turn our universities into cowed commercial spaces, crammed with young people so terrified of their mounting debts that they will fashion themselves into obedient corporate drones with less of the soul-searching that goes on in today's academy.

Once they have graduated, rather than having their loan charges frozen as is currently the case, students will be obliged to pay interest at market rates, meaning that the poorest students will potentially be paying thousands of pounds' worth of extra interest over 30 years. Meanwhile, the very wealthy, who do not need loans, and the middle-aged and elderly, who enjoyed free higher education paid for through progressive taxation, will see their odds of remaining "competitive" in the meat market of modern moneymaking vastly improved.

This is a breathtaking attack on social mobility. The report, which is likely to be directly incorporated into policy, is a statement in bald black and white that neoliberal political doctrine will now be more mercilessly pursued than it ever was under New Labour. At root, the Browne report is not about what students and graduates are willing or able to pay, but about what the government is unwilling to pay to fund a higher education system that, with its fusty emphasis on learning and personal development, has always contradicted to some extent the interests of profit.

The question isn't where the money to run our universities will come from -- the question is where it won't come from. If the Tories push ahead with their plans to raise tuition fees, then it won't come from taxpayers; not anymore.

Let's remind ourselves of the levels of stomach-churning hypocrisy at play here. The politicians currently wrangling over how many tens of thousands of pounds students from poor families should be obliged to pay, and when, for degrees which are now all but essential to any hope of decent employment in a beleaguered job market, all attended university for free. Not only that: Cameron, Clegg and Osborne, despite having families wealthy enough to educate them at top private schools, were all offered generous maintenance grants to support them through their prestigious free courses, payable by edict of the Education Act 1962.

Like many universal benefits, the student grant was long ago tossed into the dogpit of corporate cannibalism, with young people and their families now forced to make up the shortfall of what was once ours on principle. The student grant and free tuition used to be financed perfectly adequately through the tax system -- a system that saw top-rate taxpayers paying 83 per cent on their earnings in the 1970s and 60 per cent even during the grimily golden years of Thatcherite neoliberalism.

This isn't just a tax on the young. It's far, far worse than that. Today, the new, caring Conservative party plans to effectively abolish higher education that is free at the point of delivery, and instead deliver the functions of the welfare state to the market in their entirety.

The attack on university funding is part of a fiscally sadistic cuts agenda that seeks to roll back the state in order to turn universities, hospitals and even jobcentres into little more than third-sector service providers jostling for the business of the desperate consumers who we used to think of as "citizens". This kamikaze capitalism has now cynically incorporated the language of "fairness". The coalition mouths platitudes to "fairness" precisely because fairness before the market is the one thing that savage neoliberalism can promise without blinking. This is about more than fairness, however. This is about justice.

The people of this country now face a choice -- between cringing complicity with a compromised and misleading notion of 'fairness' and the challenge of fighting for justice, genuine social justice, which is more than equality, more than fairness, and certainly more than the market can deliver.

This is a choice that faces all of us, including those who are unlucky enough to have endorsed, voted or chosen to work for the quisling Liberal Democrats. Will we remain complicit as our welfare state is destroyed and our young people's futures are aggressively pimped out to an uncaring private sector? Or will we turn around and say, while we still have the strength: enough?

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Steven Millar
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Labour MP for Midlothian Danielle Rowley: "I get my politics from my mum as well as my dad"

The daughter of Scottish Labour deputy leader Alex Rowley on being the youngest Labour MP.  

Danielle Rowley, the new Labour MP for Midlothian, wants to get one thing straight. “A lot of people automatically assume all of my politics comes from my dad,” the daughter of Scottish Labour’s deputy leader, Alex Rowley, says. “While I am influenced and inspired by him, I grew up with my mum and her parents. I have politics in all sides of my family.”

Both Rowley’s grandfathers were miners and Labour party activists. Her mother was a trade unionist and a case worker for the last Midlothian Labour MP, David Hamilton. “She was a very strong woman, a single parent, a hard worker,” Rowley says. At 27, she is upholding the family tradition by becoming Labour’s youngest MP.

When we meet in Portcullis House, in Westminster, she is dressed soberly in a navy suit jacket and blue print dress. She hopes to inspire young women in her constituency. “I grew up on a council estate,” she says. “I hope it shows them they can do any job they want to.”

Even so, Rowley’s election was a surprise. In 2015, Hamilton resigned and Midlothian went to the Scottish National Party’s Owen Thompson with a 23.4 per cent swing. Rowley, a campaigns officer for the housing charity Shelter, kept her expectations modest. After a nail-biting night, she won with a majority of 885. 

“Obviously I had the aim of winning, but I was not getting my hopes up too much,” Rowley recalls. “I was thinking I could really reduce the SNP majority, that was all. But every day on the doorstep I got more and more hopeful.”

Rowley’s father Alex is a firm supporter of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale backed Owen Smith in the 2016 leadership contest), and is seen as being softer on independence than the official party line.

But Rowley says her anti-independence views come from her constituents: “People were fed up of the idea of another referendum.”

In 2014, the independence movement caught the imagination of much of Scotland’s youth – the majority of young voters opted for Yes. So why did Rowley buck the trend? “I am very strong willed,” she says. She spent the referendum working for Gordon Brown, and was there in Kirkcaldy when Yes supporters egged the Labour MP Jim Murphy. “I got a bit of egg on me that day. You can see me [in the photos] in a red raincoat ducking out of the way.”

She believes the same hope which pushed young voters towards independence may now be blowing in the sails of Labour. “I have got a lot of friends who were part of the Yes movement,” she says. “I think there is an assumption they would support the SNP, but actually most of them voted Labour.”

The Corbyn surge, then, is real. “People were fed up, but they needed to be given something to give them hope,” she says. “I think Labour gave them something to offer.

“Whenever we had younger voters on the doorstep, they were excited about the manifesto. Even some of my friends who hadn’t voted were excited about it.”

As for the suggestion – floated by the Labour MSP Neil Findlay – that it should have spent more time talking about Corbyn and less about independence, Rowley demurs. “You couldn’t have just opposing independence, you couldn’t just have the manifesto,” she says. “You had to have both.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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