Students celebrate graduating. Photo: Dan Kitwood
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If Labour cuts tuition fees, it won't help more disadvantaged students go to university

In higher education policy, Labour can be more radical – and on the cheap.

Not since the days of effigies of Nick Clegg being burned have tuition fees exerted such a hold over the political agenda. Labour’s offer on fees is shaping up as its final policy card to play before the general election. As John McDermott observes: “Tuition fees is part of Labour’s broader problem: how to make good on Mr Miliband’s talk of radicalism in a world with no money.”

It appears that Labour’s answer – one first advocated at party conference in September 2011 – will be to lower maximum fees from £9,000 to £6,000. The policy is under vicious attack from universities, with an array of vice-chancellors taking to The Times yesterday to express fears that it could do “colossal damage” to university funding. And, as I explained last week, a cut in tuition fees would increase income inequality. It would reduce the tax burden of the richest graduates while doing nothing to help less well-off graduates or, even more importantly, lower socioeconomic groups when they are studying at university.

Damningly, Labour’s apparent new policy on tuition fees doesn’t even engage with the question of how to get more disadvantaged pupils into top universities. Partly this reflects the surprising success of the trebling of tuition fees. Apocalyptic fears that a generation of students would be put off university have not materialised: there are more disadvantaged pupils at university than ever before. Application rates for the new university year have just risen to new heights, with a bump in application rates from 18-year-olds living in the most disadvantaged areas in England from 18 to a record 21 per cent.

But disadvantaged pupils have been much slower making their way to elite institutions. In 2014, 22 per cent of applicants from advantaged areas went to higher tariff universities, compared to just 3 per cent from disadvantaged areas. Today a young person from the richest fifth of neighbourhoods is ten times more likely to go to a Russell Group university than a child from the poorest fifth. Five independent schools send as many students to Oxbridge every year as 1,800 state schools combined.

There is a lot that could be done to help – and it would cost far less than the £2.5bn a year it would take to lower tuition fees to £6,000.

All disadvantaged pupils can afford to take out a tuition fee loan because they will only begin to pay it back when the start earning £21,000 a year. But disadvantaged pupils do endure financial hardship at university that impedes their ability to study, and can even lead to dropping out. The problem is rooted not in tuition fees but inadequate maintenance loans. When I visited Sheffield recently, Emily Connor, the president of Sheffield Hallam Students' Union, explained that she received only £7.50 a week in living costs after accommodation expenses in her first year. Thousands of students around the country have had similar experiences. Ensuring adequate provision of maintenance loans would transform the university experience for disadvantaged students.

There are also simple steps that could be taken to make the admissions system fairer for students. Every year, more than 50,000 places are awarded through clearing. This annual harum-scarum for places is a charade: university places are decided by which students spot adverts for universities for their remaining places and who has the speediest broadband connection. Panic-stricken pupils are lumbered with courses they lack genuine interest in – bad news for the universities and, when they drop out or change degree, the taxpayer too.

All of this is because of the UK’s insane requirement that pupils (unless they want to do a gap year) apply to university before they have sat their A-levels. This system is failing bright children at underperforming schools. Contrary to the myth, state school teachers are not too generous in their predicted grades for pupils, but too harsh. That is why 3,000 disadvantaged pupils each year get the grades to go to an elite university but go to a less competitive one.

The solution is not complicated. It is, as a government task force recommended in 2004, for students to apply to university after getting their results, something that exams a few weeks earlier and a quicker marking process would allow. This system “would be much fairer and would give less advantaged students the confidence to apply to the most selective universities”, says Sir Peter Lampl, chair of the Sutton Trust.

The financial cost of this modest change would be negligible. But the upshot would be great. Fewer students would waste time and money on courses they do not want to do. And fewer disadvantaged students would end up in universities that do not do justice to their ability, providing a much-needed boon to social mobility.

If Labour yearns for a chance to be radical on the cheap, higher education policy provides just this opportunity. Three months before polling day, it is not one that the party has taken.  

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.