Yesterday’s Queen’s Speech was written with one eye on the referendum and the other on the first line of David Cameron’s obituary, so it was mostly non-contentious (prison reform, life chances) or abstract (spaceports).
But Labour believe that the government has, far from avoiding controversy, stumbled into a big row over tuition fees. Lost amid a flurry of announcements was the government’s intention to allow universities with good teaching records to charge above the £9,000 cap. If implemented, it would represent the beginning of a two-tier education system in the United Kingdom.
Labour are launching a campaign focussing on what they are dubbing the “Tory price tag”. Senior Labour sources believe the policy is almost ideally suited to Jeremy Corbyn’s strengths as a politician, allowing him to tap into the grassroots movement of student anger at tuition fee rises while also building a coalition across age and class with parents and lecturers to be targeted as well.
In years past, tuition fee rises have been politically pain-free as far as the government is concerned, but the party believes that things will be different this time. Corbyn is a longstanding opponent of tuition fees full stop, which will give him a clearer stance than that of Ed Miliband.
And in times past, the costs of a tuition fee raise to new graduates entering the job market for the first time have been wiped out by tax cuts elsewhere. Even allowing for the effective 9 per cent increase in marginal tax rates for graduates on £9,000, the government’s increases in the income tax threshold have given graduate employees similar pay packets than they would have enjoyed had fees remained at the £3,000 level and the threshold not increased.
With the income tax threshold due to hit £11,000 by 2016-7, new graduates will no longer be feeling the benefit of future raises – but will face what is effectively a hike on basic rate of 10, 11, 12 per cent. This means that not just students, but new entrants to the job market, will feel significantly less prosperous – increasing the odds of this latest round of tuition fee increases being rather more crippling to the government than those in times past.