The coalition’s fees plan is in trouble

Why ministers are desperate to stop universities charging students £9,000 a year.

The "breakneck coalition" has hit another bump in the road. The universities minister, David Willetts, has announced that the government's white paper on higher education, which we were expecting next month, will be delayed in order to "test proposals more thoroughly among the sector, student and other experts".

Willetts is concerned that most institutions seem likely to follow Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial in charging the maximum £9,000 a year. He has threatened to make even larger cuts to public funding if average fees exceed £7,500.

But the government's reckless decision to cut 80 per cent of the teaching budget – including the entire teaching budget for arts and humanities – means that most universities need to charge at least £7,000 just to stand still, let alone offer an improved service to their "customers". Others are keen to charge full whack to avoid being seen as a "poorer option".

The reason why ministers are so troubled by this is that the more universities charge in fees, the more the government has to pay out in loans. The decision to triple fees was sold by Nick Clegg and others as a deficit reduction measure, but it was nothing of the sort. The truth is that, for the reminder of this parliament at least (and possibly after it), the reforms will cost the government more, not less.

The new fees won't come into effect until 2012, which means repayments won't kick in until 2016 for a three-year course. In the intervening period, the government will be forced to pay out huge amounts in maintenance loans and tuition fee loans. If higher education spending isn't to run out of control, the coalition will need to make even deeper cuts to the teaching budget.

Whatever solution ministers choose, Clegg's claim that "the state of the public finances" meant there was no option but to raise fees has been exposed as a flat-out lie.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's Eurosceptics should steer clear of loaded language

Phrases such as "wholesale importation" leave the impression Labour will not speak for migrant workers.

Nothing reflects Britain’s division over Brexit than the Labour party. Do we want soft or hard Brexit? What do we prioritise? The fractures within the party’s ranks is a portrait of the divisions splintering the country.

Labour’s ambiguity over Brexit helped it in the general election in appealing to everyone. It convinced Remain voters that they could hold the Tories to account while promising the Leave voters that the referendum decision would be respected. But now clarity is needed. 

The Labour leadership seems to be angling for a hard Brexit, wishing to leave the single market and customs union on the grounds that this honours the wishes of the 52 per cent. Ironically, they are at odds with everyone in this situation, from the general public – who favour access to single market over immigration controls – to a poll in LabourList showing that 72 per cent of readers prioritised inclusion within the single market.

Jeremy Corbyn's lukewarm attitude to the EU is well documented. If the Labour Party are serious about their public ownership plans for the railways and energy, it’s likely they envision it being made difficult within the EU because of directives which create competition between the state and the private sector. There are unexplored alternatives to this, as seen in Germany and Italy where private companies are made and run the industries with the states acting as the major shareholders of the company. However it’s unlikely to see the hard left ever accepting this, given its disdain for both the private sector and the idea of it interacting with the state to deliver services.

But this is not all that should trouble progressives regarding the Labour leadership’s stance on Brexit. During a recent Andrew Marr programme in which he appeared on, Corbyn claimed that mass immigration had been used to denigrate the conditions for British workers, saying that there was a “wholesale importation” of workers from parts of Europe which would then undermine the rights of British workers. It’s an argument that has been regurgitated by British politicians consistently in recent years – but from the right, not the left.

The idea that migrants are taking British jobs and depressing wages does not hold up to evidence at all. The London School of Economics carried out a research which illustrated increases in migration from the EU did not result in depression of British wages. That’s not to suggest that wages have not stagnated, but rather the trend is linked to the financial crash in 2008, rather than migration. Corbyn’s defenders insist that there were no deliberate racist overtones in his argument, and that the villains are employers deliberately taking advantage of an easily exploited labour market. But the manner in which Corbyn framed his speech was worrying.

The reason for this is that Brexit has created an unbelievable sense of uncertainty, insecurity and fear amongst migrants. Their position in society is now being contested by politicians with different stakes in society to them. Xenophobic abuse – legitimised as an acceptable part of political discourse by Brexit – has been climbing swiftly. Immigrants are seen as threats to British jobs and that is a narrative consistently drummed out – not just since last year but for possibly the past decade.

This is not to say that Labour should not address how some employers might seek to cut costs by hiring foreign workers on a cheap rate. But phrases such as “wholesale importation” or even using the heavily demonised “mass migration” simply sketches the idea that Labour are swinging towards the hard Brexit voters, and in doing so leaving migrant workers to be defended by no one. If the intended idea was to castigate employers, it simply entrenched the idea of immigration as a problem. Rather than bringing British and migrant workers together, you know with that whole “workers of the world unite” idea, Corbyn’s framing of the argument keeps them pitted against each other.

If Brexit has shown us anything it’s that language matters in politics in how it transmits its message to people. Slogans such as “take back control” were attacks on multiculturalism and immigration, stoking white nationalism, even if the Leave campaign insisted it wasn’t about that. Likewise, Corbyn might insist it wasn’t about migrants, but his message sounded a lot like he was blaming freedom of movement for the suppression of wage growth in Britain.

Needless to say, Labour need a rethink on what kind of Brexit it pursues.