Raise corporation tax to abolish tuition fees

Business must make its contribution to removing the fear of debt from our education system.

Did New Labour give big business too easy a time? On tax, the answer is a clear yes. The coalition government has inherited lower corporation tax than even the John Major and Margaret Thatcher governments had.

Our company tax rates are lower, too, than those in the US, France, Germany, Japan and Canada. Has this low taxation persuaded business to invest more in its staff? The answer is no. Expenditure on workforce training and education is lower here than elsewhere, as is the proportion of profits allocated to reinvestment in research and development.

Now, while the coalition government tells us all to tighten our belts, it proposes to reduce corporation tax still further. George Osborne's aim is to give us the lowest profit taxes in the G20, which would deprive the Treasury of £6.4bn a year at a time when new school buildings and free school meals are considered a luxury by Clegg and Cameron.

So why isn't this a major issue in the Labour leadership elections? Why are candidates not raising public awareness of what amounts to the legal pickpocketing of public-sector workers, students, the unemployed and pensioners in order to fund tax breaks for multinationals?

The University and College Union (UCU) proposes that, instead of cutting the tax on company profits, we should raise it to that of the average in the G7. This would raise enough money to abolish university tuition fees and give hard-working families an opportunity to get tap in to a better education without fear of debt.

It is not merely an ideological assault on business. A landmark 1997 report concluded that the beneficiaries of higher education should foot the bill. The report identified the three beneficiaries as the student, the state and business. We have seen both fees and top-up fees introduced to squeeze more money out of the student and sustained increases from the state. We have seen nothing from business.

The current debate on higher education funding has been far too narrowly focused on how to try and squeeze more money out the individual student through higher fees or graduate taxes. Our plans are the fairest way to make business, rather than students or taxpayers, pay for the numerous benefits it gets from UK higher education.

Simply raising corporation tax to the G7 average would raise £3.9bn in revenue and would allow the UK to abolish tuition fees altogether. Furthermore, it would not deprive the Treasury of the billions that Osborne's cuts will.

Access to education is a central driver of social mobility and should be a natural Labour issue. Shifting the balance from individual taxation to a tax on profits is ethical, and would fund public services such as education at a time when cash is short. Yet it would still leave the UK with one of the lowest company tax rates in the G7.

All the polling on student funding shows the country is vehemently against higher university fees, yet the Lib Dems have spectacularly conceded any ground they had gained in the area by reneging on their election commitment to campaign and vote against a rise in fees.

Most of all, for those who aspire to lead Labour, opening up this debate would begin to redress the idea that many people had when the party was in government: that it was on the side of the fat cats, not the people.

Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union, the largest post-16 education trade union in the world.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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