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

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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