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Abolishing tuition fees is a wasteful electoral bung – but it works

The policy case for Labour scrapping them is thin. But the political case for abandoning the pledge to remove fees is thinner still. 

The most important thing about the debate over Labour’s tuition fee pledge is that most of the arguments, on both sides, don’t add up.

I want to first address the arguments against the pledge that don’t work.

The first, and most frequently deployed, is about people who don’t go to university subsidising those who do. The difficulty here is that they are already under the current system. After 30 years, the debt is written off by the Treasury, a bill paid out of, you guessed it, general taxation.

(Though because our tax system is already fairly progressive, this bill is again, predominantly paid by higher-earning graduates as well.)

This is more acute if people do work that is socially important but low-paying. A social worker, even one who makes the highest pay grade, is not going to pay off their tuition fees. A teacher who stays in the classroom is not going to pay off their tuition fees. The bulk of people who work as artists or designers are not going to pay off their tuition fees.

So you can’t really defend tuition fees using that argument. That Labour’s plan to pay for abolition – of which, more below – is levied on the highest earners makes the argument even more redundant.

The second argument is that a tuition fee cut is regressive – that is, it hands a great deal of money to above average-earners at the expense of lower earners. It is true that the policy was the single most expensive item in Labour’s manifesto, at £11.2bn a year. But as I’ve written before, what people miss about tuition fees is that they are a form of taxation: they are levied on graduates, not students, through PAYE or through your tax return. They don’t behave like any other type of fee or loan you might take out and should be seen as a tax.

That matters a great deal because taxation has to be seen in the round, not simply in isolation. The question over whether any tax cut is regressive is only partially about who the cut benefits.

Taken in isolation, decisions on tax made since 2010 have been highly progressive, increasing the share of public spending borne by the richest. But taken in concert with what is done with that revenue, changes to tax-and-spend have been highly regressive. The gains to the lowest earners from increases in the threshold – the amount you have to earn before levying taxation – have been more than wiped out by cuts in working-age benefits and the knock-on effects of cuts in services.

Labour’s tuition fee cut is paid for by increasing taxes on capital gains – that is profit made selling an investment – and people earning more than £80,000. So it is basically, for the most part, a tax cut for people earning £21,000 to £45,000 paid for by people earning more than £80,000. The overall package distributes from the highest earners to people earning above average – so it is downward redistribution, albeit not to the very poorest.

You can argue of course that this is not a particularly good use of £11.2bn. But the difficulty here is that for this argument to work, you have to believe that Labour would have been able to go into the 2017 election without promising to abolish fees and instead planning to spend the £11bn on, say, wraparound childcare or housebuilding, and would still have received the boost in 18-24 turnout that helped the party gain Warwick and Leamington, Canterbury, Cardiff North and Bristol North West, among other seats. This doesn’t seem particularly likely.

That doesn’t change the fact that while Labour is getting a lot of bang for its buck electorally speaking, it is not getting a lot of value policy-wise for its £11.2bn. Why not? Because the cost per graduate is actually quite small.  

The cost for Plan 1 graduates – that is, graduates who went to university on the £3,000 fee – starts at £2 a month for people earning £17,776 or more a year, which gradually increases as you earn more. Earners at £80,000, when Labour's planned tax hike would kick in, pay £469 a month. 

For Plan 2 graduates, the cost of repayment starts at £4 a month when you start earning more than £21,500 a year, and again, increases as you earn more. Earners at £80,000 pay £443. 

These are not life-altering sums. If you are seeking to meaningfully alter the take-home pay of a graduate, reducing income tax by a penny – or value added tax, or for that matter duty on petrol – has a far more significant effect than cutting fees. Just ask people earning above £80,000, who would lose significantly more than they'd gain under Labour's plans.  

(This is probably why tuition fees mostly exercise the parents of people paying them and students who have yet to pay them, rather than tax-paying graduates. It’s striking that Labour’s turnout boost came among 18-24s and they flipped parents from Tory to Labour. Actually, if you are a taxpaying graduate, Labour policies on housing and the taxable threshold do have a meaningful effect on your quality of life. Tuition fees, not so much.)

This is even more stark when you remember the cost of tuition fee abolition to the Exchequer, which comes in at a heady £11.2bn a year. There are lots of things you can do that actually would improve the pay packets of graduates – not least build a lot more housing – with £11.2bn, but not much that any individual graduate can do with £2 a month.

But regardless, it comes back to the earlier question: could Labour have got the results it did while pledging the tax rises that paid for that £11.2bn a year tuition fee cut but spending them elsewhere? I don’t buy it myself. Abolishing tuition fees is to Labour as redistribution to the affluent elderly is to the Conservatives – counterproductive as far as their policy aims go, but essential to their election-winning coalition.

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

Spudgun67 via Creative Commons/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
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It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist.