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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.

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Corbyn is personally fireproof, but his manifesto could be torched by the Brexit blaze

There is no evidence that EU migration has depressed wages – but most Labour MPs believe it has.

News, like gas, expands to fill the space available to it. That’s why the summer recess can so often be a time of political discomfort for one party or another. Without the daily grind of life at Westminster, difficult moments can linger. Minor rows become front-page news.

There are many reasons why Theresa May is spending three weeks hiking in northern Italy and Switzerland, and one of them is that it is hard to have a leadership crisis if your leader is elsewhere. That makes the summer particularly dangerous for Labour. The danger is heightened as the majority of the press is unsympathetic to the party and the remainder is simply bored. Even a minor crisis could turn into a catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 23 July, therefore, carried the same risks as juggling lit matches in a dry forest. The Labour leader ruled out continuing participation in the single market after Britain leaves the political structures of the European Union. For good measure, he added that the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had been used to undermine pay and conditions for British workers. Both statements only aggravate the stress fractures in the Labour movement and in its electoral coalition.

The good news for the Labour leader is that he is fireproof. Only God or Corbyn himself can prevent him from leading the party into the next election, whenever it comes, and no one will be foolish enough to try to remove him, even if they had the inclination. Also, while the question of what flavour of Brexit to pursue divides Labour in the country, it doesn’t divide Labour at Westminster. Most Labour MPs nodded along in agreement with Corbyn during the Marr interview. They believe – as the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, outlined a day later – that remaining in the customs union and the single market would be a betrayal of the wishes of Leave voters, who want full control over Britain’s borders and laws.

There is no evidence that migration from the eastern bloc has depressed wages. But most Labour MPs believe that it has. “I am convinced,” one formerly pro-European MP told me, “that no matter what the studies say, immigration has reduced wages.”

Most of the Labour people who are willing to kick up a fuss about “hard” Brexit are outside parliament. These include the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who wants Britain to remain in the single market; the general secretary of the TSSA union, Manuel Cortes, who recently used the New Statesman website to urge the party to keep all of its options open, including a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU; and the rapper Akala, who lambasted Corbyn’s interview on Twitter. While a large minority of Labour MPs back a softer version of Brexit, they are a minority, and not a large enough one to combine with Tory dissidents to make a Commons majority, even when the votes of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green MP Caroline Lucas are taken into account.

This increases the party’s dependence on Jeremy Corbyn. As the leader’s aides observe, even among the quarter of the country that believes the government should simply overturn the referendum result, only a quarter of that quarter do so because they have a particular affection for the institutions of the European Union.

For the majority of hard Remainers, Brexit is a significant battleground in a larger culture war, one in which Corbyn is otherwise in perfect alignment with their values. His electoral appeal to Labour MPs is that he is someone who can say the same things on Brexit and migration as Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock previously did, but without losing votes in England’s great cities.

The electoral threat to Labour from backing a harder form of exit is, in any case, often overstated. The first-past-the-post system makes the Liberal Democrats an inadequate refuge for anguished Remainers in England, while the SNP’s support for Scottish independence makes it an unsuitable home for Labour refugees in Scotland. Team Corbyn feels that Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, will struggle to convince Labour voters that he can be trusted because of the role he played in designing the new system of tuition fees (having previously pledged to vote against them). In any case, the risk of letting in a Conservative prime minister – probably one committed to a version of Brexit even harder than Labour’s – further locks Remainers in Labour’s corner.

That leaves Labour in Westminster free to pursue a version of Brexit that meets the needs of both the leadership, which relishes the freedom to pursue a more radical economic policy unconstrained by the European Union, and Labour MPs, particularly those with seats in Yorkshire and the Midlands, who are concerned about opposition to immigration in their constituencies. This has the happy side effect of forcing the Conservatives to take the blame for delivering any Brexit deal that falls short of the promises made by Vote Leave during the referendum and in the high-blown rhetoric used by Theresa May during the election campaign.

However, all is not rosy. What most Labour MPs seem to have forgotten is that Brexit is not simply a political battleground – something to be leveraged to reduce the number of complaints about migration and to hasten the Tory government into an early grave. There is a political victory to be had by using the Brexit process to clobber the government. But there is also a far bigger defeat in store for the left if leaving the EU makes Britain poorer and more vulnerable to the caprice of international finance. That Jeremy Corbyn is personally fireproof doesn’t mean that his manifesto can’t be torched by the Brexit blaze. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue