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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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Peter Mandelson slams Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer for “not acting in the national interest”

The Labour peer and former cabinet minister accuses his party leader and the shadow Brexit secretary of having “torpedoed Labour’s ability to oppose”.

The government has chosen to interpret last year’s sea-change referendum in an extreme way and embraced a set of positions and values on Brexit and migration that risk making the UK an illiberal, fractured and smaller nation, literally and economically.

How can the government get away with this? The referendum was not a landslide victory.  Millions of Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem supporters voted on the other side. Only a proportion of the winners voted as they did for xenophobic reasons – and they certainly did not vote to make themselves poorer.

Despite this, the government has chosen a course of action – a hard Brexit – that reflects the views of vocal and influential hardliners, not the majority of the public. Minority opinion has never been more powerful.

Theresa May is putting her own interest ahead of the country’s. She does not want to be the fourth Tory prime minister to be politically crucified by her party on the cross of Europe. She is desperate for the support of the right-wing press and the nationalist wing of her party.  Where Cameron placated, she has actively empowered, regardless of cost. And she hopes the costs of a hard Brexit will only emerge the other side of the next general election.

But this does not explain Labour’s position. The party’s frontbench has effectively brushed aside the views and interests of the bulk of its own supporters who wanted to stay in the EU and now don’t want to jeopardise their jobs by leaving the single market and the customs union as well. They value migration and want to see it managed, not virtually ended.

By going along with hard Brexit now, Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer have torpedoed Labour’s ability to oppose the government’s approach when it fails later on. This is not acting in the national interest.

Nobody would claim that Brexit is easy to navigate politically, but Labour has rendered itself impotent on the most important set of issues facing Britain in most peoples’ lifetime. Setting a series of belated “tests” for the government will hardly reverse the damage.

The response to all this has to go beyond party politics. A national, pro-European effort should seek to unite opinion in civic society and mainstream politics, based on three Rs:

  • Resist. We have vocally to oppose what we don't agree with – we have to challenge and controversialise decisions so ‘new norms’ don't materialise. That is why pro-refugee, anti-Trump demos, the Gina Miller case, new newspapers or campaigns against hard Brexit are so important.
     
  • Renew. People with liberal, social democratic views have been losing  arguments on issues such as security, spending, globalisation, identity, migration, integration. We need to renew our policy offer in these areas – we need real alternatives not just raw anger. There is a lot that unites some Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, SNP and Green MPs and activists across all these issues – but the networks to do new thinking have to be created.
     
  • Reorganise. We need a new generation of leaders who can inspire, locally and nationally, from both non-metropolitan and metropolitan neighbourhoods and parts of the country. Campaigns and parties have to put much more effort in to looking for new talent beyond their own organisations and boundaries. We need to hear fresh, authentic voices and end the idea that mainstream politics cannot speak for the majority.

If the centre left does not provide the leadership of this fightback, with Labour at its core, it will not have a future.

Peter Mandelson is a Labour peer, former business secretary and an architect of New Labour.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition