David Miliband becomes Labour’s lone star against a graduate tax

Unlike the other leadership candidates, Miliband stands firmly against a graduate tax to save univer

In a speech on education in Bristol today, David Miliband has marked himself out as the one and only Labour leadership candidate not to back a graduate tax. That is not to say he wants to see higher education scaled back; he doesn't just oppose the coalition cut of 10,000 university places, he actually argues for even greater expansion of university participation to 60 per cent.

Diane Abbott voted against the government when Labour legislated for variable tuition fees in 2004 and was a vocal advocate for a graduate tax. Ed Balls now tells us that he argued at the time for a graduate tax from his position inside the Treasury.

Andy Burnham said he was attracted to a graduate tax at the early hustings events and at the weekend Ed Miliband said he would develop a graduate tax proposal to submit to Lord Browne's inquiry into higher education finance.

But today, David Miliband marked himself out by refusing to fall in line and saying that university "expansion must not come at the expense of quality . . . graduates, not students, will need to contribute more. There are a number of ways of achieving that, such as reforms to the student loan system or variations on a graduate contribution scheme. But the principles are clear: cost must not deter access and contributions must be based on ability to pay."

His argument for increasing the participation rate is a compelling and economically literate one. In the UK currently, 45 per cent of the under-30s attend university -- a lower level than for Finland, Australia and New Zealand. And Barack Obama has pledged that by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of university graduates in the world, surpassing the top country, South Korea, which has 53 per cent.

Future-proof

Ed Balls gets criticised for his advocacy of "post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory", but investing in a world-class university sector is now a consensus response to globalisation. Successful innovation clusters invariably have world-class universities at their heart, as well as highly skilled workforces that stop the race to the bottom while sustaining quality jobs in the most future-proof of industries.

So, if all the candidates are in a similar place in opposing higher education cuts, why is David Miliband striking out and seeking to differentiate himself on higher education funding? Why call for growth in the sector without explaining how to finance it? What is the difference between a "graduate contribution scheme" and "a graduate tax"? What are the "reforms to the student loan system" that appeal to him?

One contributor to an online Q&A Ed Miliband took part in yesterday criticised the graduate tax idea for discouraging students from living "frugally". But as Ed Miliband argued, it all depends on whether a new graduate tax is used to fund university tuition or student living costs. One of the challenges for the Browne review is get a fair balance of funding for universities themselves and for student maintenance support.

An open debate about the range of alternatives is exactly what Labour needs this leadership contest to be about: not a contest of characters and personalities, but of policies and ideas. Abbott, Balls, Burnham and Ed Miliband need to explain how much a graduate tax would be and whether they propose any exemptions.

Today, however, David Miliband has done what Ed Balls did over immigration and made himself a lone star in a big policy debate. Expect him to be challenged on why at the hustings in Lambeth tonight.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit