Will cutting fees to £6,000 actually help? Photo: Getty
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What does Lord Mandelson's tuition fees warning to Labour reveal about its policy?

The former Labour Business Secretary is to warn Labour about their imminent higher education pledge.

The former Labour Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, is set to warn his party about their imminent higher education pledge. Mandelson, whose department received the universities and skills brief during the New Labour years, is intervening ahead of Labour's expected announcement of a cut in tuition fees.

The Guardian reports that the Labour peer will suggest any reform to tuition fees has to ensure that the current range and flow of funding into universities from all available sources is sustained. He is also expected to voice his concern about making a higher education pledge before the election, believing it would be better to resolve the issue when in government.

In Mandelson's opinion, the levers of government would allow the party to tackle the extremely complex long-term funding implications of changing tuition fees. It would also provide Labour the opportunity to properly consider the impact if a graduate tax were introduced, a policy that the shadow universities minister Liam Byrne told me is his preferred option.

Mandelson will make his comments about Labour's upcoming policy in a speech to Universities UK today, as the Labour leadership continues to grapple with its tuition fees announcement, which has long been expected to arrive this month.

The party is a little stuck with its higher education promise. Even as far back as 2011, and repeatedly since then, Miliband and other senior Labourites have said that were they currently in government (I hear Labour politicians were instructed to speak strictly "in the subjunctive" on this subject), they would introduce £6,000 tuition fees, down from the coalition's controversial £9,000.

Yet the party has not officially announced this policy, and seems to be in limbo. I hear from a shadow cabinet aide that the shadow chancellor Ed Balls is "happy" for Labour to cut tuition fees, but needs the party to find the money to cost such a policy, and so Labour is waiting on coming up with a funding plan. Another obstacle is that although cutting tuition fees is a popular policy, university vice chancellors have been forthright against a tuition fee cut, and there is the argument that the coalition tripling the fees has not actually put pupils off applying to university. A better policy, as Tim has written, would be to help disadvantaged students with maintenance funding, rather than cutting their tuition fees.

On the BBC's Today programme this morning, the Business Secretary Vince Cable defending the Lib Dems' agreement to a hike in tuition fees, referred to Labour being stuck on its policy: "As I understand it, the people who are advising Ed Miliband and his team are telling him that this is a very foolish thing to do because it will either open a very large hole in their budget or it will be funded by quite serious cuts in universities, which is the last thing we want."

It could be that there are other plans in the mix, to mitigate the cost of helping out students financially. One shadow cabinet aide close to the tuition fees wrangling tells me there has been talk among some of a system like New Zealand’s, which has interest-free student loans.

Labour's tuition fees announcement was supposed to take place in February, which means the party only has a week left to reveal its policy. Apparently, this decision now lies with Miliband. As the party is planning to unveil its "young people's manifesto" at the end of this month, it may coincide with that.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.