One of the more intractable arguments currently consuming the left – or at least, the bit of the left that happens to scroll past me as I stare, dead eyed, at Twitter of a morning – is about what the progressive thing to do about university tuition fees is.
One side, which aligns with Labour’s current position of ditching them, argues that education is a social good; that the older generation didn’t have to pay for theirs; that introducing fees has damaged social mobility; and that loading kids up with debt as they start off in life is about as regressive as you can get.
The other side – drawn largely from the part of the centre-left that remains more Corbynsceptic – replies that not everyone goes to university; that the biggest beneficiary of higher education is the students themselves; and that scrapping fees means spending billions to benefit well paid graduates rather than on, I dunno, libraries or Sure Start centres. There’s a whole load of other stuff in there about interest rates and repayment thresholds, but that’s the gist.
The latter group are, in a narrow technical sense, right about much of this. Nonetheless, I wish they’d shut up, because they keep missing the point.
As it happens, Jeremy Corbyn was wrong in his contention that, “Fewer working class young people are applying to university”. Applications have continued rising, despite the introduction of the highest fees in Europe. Indeed, access rates are – counter-intuitively – worse in Scotland, where there are no fees.
The “Our parents didn’t have to pay fees!” argument doesn’t entirely hold water, either. Most baby boomers didn’t pay fees to go to university, but in the vast majority of cases that was because they didn’t go to university. The proportion of 18-year-olds who stay on in higher education has risen from less than 10 per cent in 1970, to around half today. That obviously costs more – which is one of the reasons fees were introduced in the first place.
Nonetheless, I feel like those who are pointing out all this as if that settles the matter are wrong in a broader sense. They may be right in policy terms – but they’re way off on the politics.
That’s because much of the enthusiasm for scrapping tuition fees comes from people who’ve already paid them. (Most of those who will in future, by definition, are not yet old enough to vote.) That makes me think that the anger about tuition fees isn’t really about tuition fees. Rather, I think, they’ve become a talisman for something else – a sense that politics has been pretty shitty towards the younger generation of late and that they’d like this to stop.
Today’s kids, after all, are facing a world in which wages have been flat for a decade, jobs are increasingly insecure, and home ownership is basically off the table. Most of their parents may not have had university educations – but they did have access to decent jobs and secure housing and at least some sense that if they worked hard they could have nice things.
That link between effort and reward has been broken for some time – yet successive governments have ignored the fact. Instead, they’ve loaded debt onto the younger generation, on the increasingly questionable assumption that wages will one day rise fast enough that they’ll be able to pay it; and focused their efforts on protecting the privileges of the old on the rational yet short-sighted assumption that they vote and their kids don’t.
Scrapping tuition fees won’t fix any of this, of course – indeed, if we knew how to fix this, the world would be a much kinder place. Nonetheless, it means that answering enthusiasm for it with talk about tinkering with interest rates or opportunity costs is the wrong response. It’s a sort of category error: a wonkish answer to an emotional question.
Maybe scrapping tuition fees really isn’t progressive. It’ll cost billions, and there probably are better things we could do with the money. Fine. But maybe, that’s not really what the enthusiasm is about. Maybe, just once, people want to see politicians do something that might help the young and poor rather than the old and rich. Imagine that.