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Maybe scrapping tuition fees would be regressive. Perhaps we should do it anyway

Supporters of fees may be right on the policy – but they're way off on the politics.

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.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?