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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How the Democratic National Committee Chair contest became a proxy war

The two leading candidates represent the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders factions.

While in the UK this week attention has been fixed on the by-elections in Stoke-upon-Trent and Copeland, in the US political anoraks have turned their eyes to Atlanta, the capital city of the state of Georgia, and the culmination of the Democratic National Committee chairmanship election.

Democrats lost more than a President when Barack Obama left the White House - they lost a party leader. In the US system, the party out of power does not choose a solitary champion to shadow the Presidency in the way a leader of the opposition shadows the Prime Minister in the UK. Instead, leadership concentrates around multiple points at the federal, state and local level - the Senate Minority and House Minority Leaders’ offices, popular members of Congress, and high-profile governors and mayors.

Another focus is the chair of the national party committee. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is the formal governing body of the party and wields immense power over its organization, management, and messaging. Membership is exclusive to state party chairs, vice-chairs and over 200 state-elected representatives. The chair sits at the apex of the body and is charged with carrying out the programs and policies of the DNC. Put simply, they function as the party’s chief-of-staff, closer to the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party than leader of the opposition.

However, the office was supercharged with political salience last year when the then-chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was exposed following a Russian-sponsored leak of DNC emails that showed her leadership favoured Hillary Clinton as the party’s presidential nominee to Bernie Sanders. Schultz resigned and Donna Brazile, former campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000, took over as interim chair. The DNC huddled in December to thrash out procedure for the election of a permanent replacement – fixing the date of the ballot for the weekend of February 24.

The rancour of the Democratic primaries last year, and the circumstances of Schultz’s resignation, has transformed the race into a proxy war between the Clinton and Sanders factions within the party. Frontrunners Tom Perez and Keith Ellison respectively act as standard bearers for the respective camps.

Both are proven progressives with impeccable records in grassroots-based organizing. However Perez’s tenure as President Obama’s Labor Secretary and role as a Hillary booster has cast him as the establishment candidate in the race, whereas Ellison’s endorsement of the Sanders campaign in 2016 makes him the pick of the radical left.

The ideological differences between the two may be overblown, but cannot be overlooked in the current climate. The Democrats are a party seemingly at war with its base, and out of power nationwide.

Not only are they in the minority in Congress, but more than a third of the Democrats in the House of Representatives come from just three states: California, Massachusetts, and New York. As if that weren’t enough, Democrats control less than a third of state legislatures and hold the keys to just sixteen governors’ mansions.

Jacob Schwartz, president of the Manhattan Young Democrats, the official youth arm of the Democratic Party in New York County, says that the incoming chair should focus on returning the party to dominance at every tier of government:

“The priority of the Democratic leadership should be rebuilding the party first, and reaching out to new voters second," he told me. "Attacking Donald Trump is not something the leadership needs to be doing. He's sinking his own ship anyway and new voters are not going to be impressed by more negative campaigning. A focus on negative campaigning was a big part of why Hillary lost.”

The party is certainly in need of a shake-up, though not one that causes the internecine strife currently bedevilling the Labour Party. Hence why some commentators favour Ellison, whose election could be seen as a peace offering to aggrieved Sanderistas still fuming at the party for undermining their candidate.

“There's something to be said for the fact that Ellison is seen as from the Bernie wing of the party, even though I think policy shouldn't be part of the equation really, and the fact that Bernie voices are the voices we most need to be making efforts to remain connected to. Hillary people aren't going anywhere, so Ellison gives us a good jumping off point overall,” says Schwartz.

Ellison boasts over 120 endorsements from federal and state-level Democratic heavyweights, including Senator Sanders, and the support of 13 labor unions. Perez, meanwhile, can count only 30 politicians – though one is former Vice-President Joe Biden – and eight unions in his camp.

However the only constituency that matters this weekend is the DNC itself – the 447 committee members who can vote. A simple majority is needed to win, and if no candidate reaches this threshold at the first time of asking additional rounds of balloting take place until a winner emerges.

Here again, Ellison appears to hold the edge, leading Perez 105 to 57 according to a survey conducted by The Hill, with the remainder split among the other candidates.

Don’t write Perez off yet, though. Anything can happen if the ballot goes to multiple rounds and the former Secretary’s roots in the party run deep. He claimed 180 DNC supporters in an in-house survey, far more than suggested by The Hill.

We’ll find out this weekend which one was closer to the mark.

Louie Woodall is a member of Labour International, and a journalist based in New York.