Why higher tuition fees have left a £1bn-a-year black hole

Nick Clegg said the deficit meant fees had to rise. But the new system will cost the government more.

In defending the coalition's decision to triple tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000, Nick Clegg has frequently pointed to the size of the deficit. For instance, he commented in 2010:

At the time I really thought we could do it [not increase tuition fees]. I just didn't know, of course, before we came into government, quite what the state of the finances were [sic].

In reality, for the reminder of this parliament at least, the reforms will cost the government more, not less. The new fees only came into effect this year, which means repayments won't kick in until 2015 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, not least because three-quarters of universities are planning to charge £9,000 for some courses next year, with a third charging the maximum fee for all (minister previously insisted they would only do so in "exceptional circumstances").

As a result, according to a new report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), the coalition faces a £1bn-a-year black hole in university funding. Having "seriously understated" the cost of its reforms, the report warns that the government will either have to dramatically reduce student numbers, ask graduates to make higher repayments, or pass the bill on to future taxpayers.

It cites three reasons why the new system will cost the government more than previously thought. First, while ministers predicted an average fee of £7,500, the actual figure is £8,234, forcing students to take out higher tuition fee loans. Second, while the Treasury expects a 32 per cent shortfall in loans repayment, the Institute for Fiscal Studies believes the figure will be closer to 37 per cent. The government currently assumes that the average male graduate will be earning £75,000 a year in 30 years time (a reduction from an earlier estimate of £100,000) , a figure that looks excessively optimistic. Finally, the new fees system adds 0.2 percentage points to CPI inflation, triggering rises in benefits and pensions of between £420m and £1.14bn a year (unless, of course, the government, as has been widely speculated, freezes benefits).

The report concludes:

A slightly higher [repayments] cost or a slightly greater inflationary effect than the most optimistic that we have considered here would mean that the present policy is actually more expensive than the one it has replaced.

With the government likely to simply pass the cost on to the taxpayer (as would happen in a purely state-funded system), Clegg's party is entitled to ask, what was all the pain for?

Student demonstrators march against higher tuition fees in London in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: The divisions within Labour

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change.

Labour is a party torn between its parliamentary and activist wings. Since Jeremy Corbyn, who this week appealed desperately for unity, was re-elected by a landslide last September, Labour has become the first opposition in 35 years to lose a ­by-election to the governing party and has continually trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin. Yet polling suggests that, were Mr Corbyn’s leadership challenged again, he would win by a comfortable margin. Meanwhile, many of the party’s most gifted and experienced MPs refuse to serve on the front bench. In 2015 Mr Corbyn made the leadership ballot only with the aid of political opponents such as Margaret Beckett and Frank Field. Of the 36 MPs who nominated him, just 15 went on to vote for him.

Having hugely underestimated the strength of the Labour left once, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not do so again. In the contest that will follow Mr Corbyn’s eventual departure, the centrists could lock out potential successors such as the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Under Labour’s current rules, candidates require support from at least 15 per cent of the party’s MPs and MEPs.

This conundrum explains the attempt by Mr Corbyn’s supporters to reduce the threshold to 5 per cent. The “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make the ballot in 2007 and 2010) is being championed by the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Jon Lansman of Momentum, who is interviewed by Tanya Gold on page 34. “For 20 years the left was denied a voice,” he tweeted to the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, on 19 March. “We will deny a voice to no one. We face big challenges, and we need our mass membership to win again.”

The passage of the amendment at this year’s Labour conference would aid Mr Lansman’s decades-long quest to bring the party under the full control of activists. MPs have already lost the third of the vote they held under the electoral college system. They face losing what little influence they retain.

No Labour leader has received less support from his MPs than Mr Corbyn. However, the amendment would enable the election of an even more unpopular figure. For this reason, it should be resolutely opposed. One should respect the motivation of the members and activists, yet Labour must remain a party capable of appealing to a majority of people, a party that is capable of winning elections.

Since it was founded, Labour has been an explicitly parliamentary party. As Clause One of its constitution states: “[The party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.” The absurdity of a leader opposed by as much as 95 per cent of his own MPs is incompatible with this mission. Those who do not enjoy the backing of their parliamentary colleagues will struggle to persuade the voters that they deserve their support.

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change. Rather than formalising this split, the party needs to overcome it – or prepare for one of the greatest defeats in its history.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution