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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Senior Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians call for a progressive alliance

As Brexit gets underway, opposition grandees urge their parties – Labour, Lib Dems, the SNP and Greens – to form a pact.

A number of senior Labour and opposition politicians are calling for a cross-party alliance. In a bid to hold the Conservative government to account as Brexit negotiations kick off, party grandees are urging their leaders to put party politics to one side and work together.

The former Labour minister Chris Mullin believes that “the only way forward” is “an eventual pact between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens not to oppose each other in marginal seats”. 

“Given the loss of Scotland, it will be difficult for any party that is not the Conservative party to form a government on its own in the foreseeable future," Mullin argues, but he admits, “no doubt tribalists on both sides will find this upsetting” and laments that, “it may take three or four election defeats for the penny to drop”.

But there are other Labour and Liberal grandees who are envisaging such a future for Britain’s progressive parties.

The Lib Dem peer and former party leader Ming Campbell predicts that “there could be some pressure” after the 2020 election for Labour MPs to look at “SDP Mark II”, and reveals, “a real sense among the left and the centre-left that the only way Conservative hegemony is going to be undermined is for a far higher degree of cooperation”.

The Gang of Four’s David Owen, a former Labour foreign secretary who co-founded the SDP, warns Labour that it must “face up to reality” and “proudly and completely coherently” agree to work with the SNP.

“It is perfectly legitimate for the Labour party to work with them,” he tells me. “We have to live with that reality. You have to be ready to talk to them. You won’t agree with them on separation but you can agree on many other areas, or you certainly should be trying.”

The Labour peer and former home secretary Charles Clarke agrees that Labour must “open up an alliance with the SNP” on fighting for Britain to remain in the single market, calling it “an opportunity that’s just opened”. He criticises his party for having “completely failed to deal with how we relate to the SNP” during the 2015 election campaign, saying, “Ed Miliband completely messed that up”.

“The SNP will still be a big factor after the 2020 general election,” Clarke says. “Therefore we have to find a way to deal with them if we’re interested in being in power after the election.”

Clarke also advises his party to make pacts with the Lib Dems ahead of the election in individual constituencies in the southwest up to London.

“We should help the Lib Dems to win some of those seats, a dozen of those seats back from the Tories,” he argues. “I think a seat-by-seat examination in certain seats which would weaken the Tory position is worth thinking about. There are a few seats where us not running – or being broadly supportive of the Lib Dems – might reduce the number of Tory seats.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown agrees that such cooperation could help reduce the Tory majority. When leader, he worked informally in the Nineties with then opposition leader Tony Blair to coordinate their challenge to the Conservative government.

“We’re quite like we were in 1992 when Tony Blair and I started working together but with bells on,” Ashdown tells me. “We have to do something quite similar to what Blair and I did, we have to create the mood of a sort of space, where people of an intelligent focus can gather – I think this is going to be done much more organically than organisationally.”

Ashdown describes methods of cooperation, including the cross-party Cook-Maclennan Agreement on constitutional reform, uniting on Scottish devolution, a coordinated approach to PMQs, and publishing a list 50 constituencies in the Daily Mirror before the 1997 election, outlining seats where Labour and Lib Dem voters should tactically vote for one another to defeat Tory candidates.

“We created the climate of an expectation of cooperation,” Ashdown recalls. Pursuing the spirit of this time, he has set up a movement called More United, which urges cross-party support of candidates and campaigns that subscribe to progressive values.

He reveals that “Tory Central Office are pretty hostile to the idea, Mr Corbyn is pretty hostile to the idea”, but there are Conservative and Labour MPs who are “talking about participating in the process”.

Indeed, my colleague George reveals in his report for the magazine this week that a close ally of George Osborne has approached the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron about forming a new centrist party called “The Democrats”. It’s an idea that the former chancellor had reportedly already pitched to Labour MPs.

Labour peer and former cabinet minister Tessa Jowell says this is “the moment” to “build a different kind of progressive activism and progressive alliance”, as people are engaging in movements more than parties. But she says politicians should be “wary of reaching out for what is too easily defined as an elite metropolitan solution which can also be seen as simply another power grab”.

She warns against a “We’re going to have a new party, here’s the board, here’s the doorplate, and now you’re invited to join” approach. “Talk of a new party is for the birds without reach and without groundedness – and we have no evidence of that at the moment.”

A senior politician who wished not to be named echoes Jowell’s caution. “The problem is that if you’re surrounded by a group of people who think that greater cooperation is necessary and possible – people who all think the same as you – then there’s a terrible temptation to think that everyone thinks the same as you,” they say.

They warn against looking back at the “halcyon days” of Blair’s cooperation with the Lib Dems. “It’s worth remembering they fell out eventually! Most political marriages end in divorce, don’t they?”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.