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13 September 2017

Tuition fees are about more than tuition fees: The DUP and Corbyn get that

Fees represent more than just debt. 

By Jason Murugesu

A motion, tabled by shadow education secretary Angela Rayner, has forced MPs to vote on whether they believe tuition fees should rise to £9,500 a year.

Though the Department of Education maintains that “this motion has no legal effect”, MPs must decide whether they agree with Jo Johnson, the universities minister, that the current system of higher education funding “works” and fees should continue to rise. 

Tory MPs, facing a lose-lose situation, have abstained from the vote. But embarrassingly, their allies in the Democratic Unionist Party are backing Labour.

Rayner’s clever ploy reminds the nation once again that the Tories lost their majority in the snap election of 2017. But it also reflects the resurgence of a debate around tuition fees, a debate which has helped Labour. 

The party turned student-heavy seats like Canterbury red after producing a manifesto which pledged to abolish tuition fees.

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Another seat with a large student population, Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam, was lost to Labour primarily because of the former Lib Dem leader’s u-turn on tuition fee rises all the way back in 2010.

Similar forces were at play for Cambridge, where a high concentration of votes from those aged between 18 to 24 delivered the seat to Labour. 

Andrew Adonis, the Labour peer who was Tony Blair’s policy chief when tuition fees were raised to £3,000, now argues that tuition fees have become so politically toxic that if the vice-chancellors of universities do not reduce tuition fees themselves, the whole idea is doomed. 

The Tories, though, remain defensive about the decision to hike fees to £9,000 a year under the Coalition government. Speaking at an event on the future of higher education funding earlier this week, David Willetts, the Tory peer who was universities minister at the time, attempted to boil down tuition fees to a repayment formula. As he put it: “Nine percent above £21,000 – That’s all you really need to know”. 

His argument on fees was that while there might be problems with the system, “we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater” and other speakers agreed. Dr Lorraine Dearden, a research fellow at the Institute For Fiscal Studies said the basic template of tuition fees was correct, even if the interest rate was set too high. 

But like the DUP MPs, Adonis seems to have realised that this debate, at least for the vast majority of the public, is not based around the finer details of the system or minute differences in interest rates, that nobody really understands anyway.

As Jonn Elledge has previously put it in the New Statesman, answering questions about abolishing tuition fees with discussions about interest rates is a “sort of category error: a wonkish answer to an emotional question.”

The IFS’s Dearden argued that the first major mistake that the Tories made was by replacing maintenance grants for the lowest income students with maintenance loans. It wasn’t just the impact on low-income students, but the symbolism attached. The political gain the Government made by reducing the deficit through scrapping maintenance grants was not enough to make up for political loss via the growing belief that the Tories do not care about the young. 

And those who debate the finer points of tuition fee construction are also failing to understand how the issue is just one of many making life increasingly difficult for the UK’s youth. 

For instance, tuition fees would be a far less contentious issue politically if young people could expect to buy a house  yet the number of 25 year olds owning property has fallen from 46% 20 years ago to 20% today). Yet neither Willets nor any of his fellow panelists mentioned the housing crisis. 

The Tories have suffered at the ballot box for misjudging the practical and symbolic importance of tuition fees to a youth squeezed on all sides. And if Labour decide to scrap them, the end of tutiion fees will in large part be down to that failure.