A Labour government would cut fees by £3,000, Ed Miliband has announced. (Photo: Getty)
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Labour's tuition fee policy: not awful, but still pretty bad

Labour's tuition fee policy isn't as bad as I feared. It's still pretty dire.

Labour has finally revealed its manifesto position on higher education funding: the much trailed drop in the tuition fee ceiling from £9,000 per year to £6,000; and a lesser noticed increase in the maintenance grant for students from families with an income of up to £42,000 per year. I’ve written against the tuition fee change previously and, just to put this upfront, I was the most senior civil servant to work on the Browne Review of Higher Education which, in popular perception, ‘paved the way’ to the introduction of £9,000 fees – even though that isn’t what we recommended.

Today’s Labour announcements are, I have to admit, better than I expected for two reasons. But they still represent terrible policy.

Let me cover the positives before I do the rest. The first one is that reducing tuition fees on the face of it reduces the resources that universities have to put on courses. Labour has said definitively though that the drop in fee income will be made up through an increase in direct public funding. No funding gap; no imminent decline in quality. This is good news.

The second positive is that Labour’s changes, in a major departure from previous higher education reforms, will apply to all undergraduates not just new entrants. This means that students who are already in higher education or who may be entering this year – prior to the introduction of the new fee ceiling in 2016 – will incur higher fees until 2016 and then will incur the same lower rate as the new entrants. This is important because it diminishes the risk that lots of people thinking about going to university this year will put off their entry for a year, delaying their careers and emptying out classrooms. If Labour had introduced the lower fee only for new entrants, then there would have been a minimum £9,000 advantage to putting off study for a year (the £3,000 reduction in the fee multiplied by the three years of the typical degree); now the advantage of putting off study is only £3,000, because 2015 entrants will receive the benefit of the future fee decrease in subsequent years.

Okay, enough about the positives. The problems with the policy are legion. The first is that the change is simply unnecessary. University applications are rising, despite the higher fee levels, and the gap between the participation rate of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and others has continued to reduce. Labour has said the policy will cost £2.7bn a year. It will fund that cost through changes to pension tax relief. But the money could have been used for something else. To put the sum in perspective, it is about twenty times what it costs to avoid dropping the benefits cap to £23,000 per year. Perhaps that example is slightly too remote from higher education, in which case let’s think about the ‘forgotten 50%’ that Labour used to talk about. These are the young people who don’t go to university. £2.7bn per year would be transformative for that group. Merely a sixth of that sum would pay for 200,000 higher level apprenticeships. However, Labour isn’t helping them, instead it’s helping those already fortunate enough to go to university.

In fact the bias of their policy is even more unfortunate than this. Despite Ed Miliband’s rhetoric today about a promise for young people, it isn’t young people that pay tuition fees. Fees are paid back through what looks a lot like a tax on graduates. Reducing the fee level reduces the level of taxation on graduates. And because the ‘tax system’ is progressive in its design, the poorest graduates don’t pay back anything like the full amount of the fees. Labour’s policy in effect is a tax cut for graduates on above-average incomes. Forget about the 50 per cent of young people who don’t go to university, this policy won’t even help the poorest 50 per cent of those who do.

One last dig. Labour has suggested concern over the past few years about postgraduate study. The numbers of UK students going on to postgraduate study looks pretty flat, despite the higher demand for postgraduate skills in an increasingly knowledge-intensive economy. This may in part be because there is far less student finance available for postgraduate study. In order to remedy this, the Chancellor announced an extension of student loans to postgraduate students at the Autumn Statement last year. But that new funding builds on a financing system that Labour has decided is unsustainable. Part of their argument today is that fees have to come down because so many graduates don’t pay them back anyway. It’s difficult to see how Labour could wind back from that position to accept postgraduate student loans, which would take the loan amounts – and hence the non-repayment rate – in the opposite direction to what the party has said it wants. Yet it will already be spending an extra £2.7bn a year in direct public funding on undergraduate higher education. So it’s unlikely that it would be able to find even more direct public funding for postgraduate study.

There is a real risk in other words that a Labour government will spend a lot of money fixing a problem that doesn’t exist in undergraduate education and have nothing left to fix a problem that seems real and pressing to many people in postgraduate education.

Emran Mian is director of the Social Market Foundation

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide