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The dustman and the doctor: fairness and the student fees debate

The idea that education – all education – should be free is intoxicating and liberating. But there's a problem.

The most toxic political imagery of the student fees debate dates from 2010. First, there was Nick Clegg brandishing a sheet of paper bearing his election pledge that the Liberal Democrats would vote against “any increase” in tuition fees. Then, a few months later, there was the sight of protesters scrawling graffiti and urinating on the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. Churchill was rapidly restored, but Clegg – who, I am told, did not believe in the pledge when he signed it but could not resist the prospect of those student voters in university towns – never properly recovered.

The issue of how to fund English universities had been febrile for years – long before the 2008 financial crisis, the ballooning of the Budget deficit that followed and the 2010 Lib Dem vote for the vertiginous increase in English tuition fees. (University funding is a devolved matter, with the Scots going their own way.)

In 2004, Tony Blair, enfeebled by the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, had almost been knocked off his prime ministerial perch when he, too, trebled fees, albeit to a mere £3,000, to be paid back after graduation. Gordon Brown’s allies, smelling post-Iraq weakness, hovered over the Labour leader before allowing him – by a sliver – to survive.

The Conservatives have historically been less troubled by the matter. Students largely have not voted in high enough numbers – certainly not for them – to impinge on their chances of electoral success. Meanwhile, the centre left has had lumps kicked out of it while wrestling with the problem of how best to fund higher education. Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto significantly changed Labour’s position, promising to abolish fees altogether; he would also, he told the NME, “deal with” student debt. That half-pledge has now become a vague “ambition” because of its estimated £100bn price tag.

As a piece of campaigning, it worked. By contrast, Ed Miliband got nowhere in 2015 with his promise to reduce fees by a third to £6,000. It was too little, too late to mobilise student voters or their concerned parents, but more than enough for George Osborne, an unrepentant Vince Cable and a nervous higher education sector (sotto voce) to raise questions about Labour’s fiscal rectitude and/or the financial security of universities.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), in its disinterested and peskily rigorous way, joined in – and with a more subtle point, suggesting that cutting fees would benefit higher-earning graduates the most. Those who earned less over their lifetime would, in any event, not have to pay all of the money back.

Until Corbyn’s swashbuckling manifesto simplified matters, or oversimplified them, the left had been tied in knots on the fairness point from the moment that tuition fees were introduced, relatively quietly, in the peak-Blair year of 1998.

The idea that education – all education – should be free is intoxicating and liberating. It is intoxicating because one’s Enlightenment reflexes are happily triggered: the pursuit of knowledge is wonderful; knowledge leads to individual self-fulfilment and should be made available to the largest possible number. We all benefit from a better-educated population, not least by the spread of liberal values. Utilitarians rejoice – the country becomes economically more prosperous, though the evidence for this is irritatingly murky.

It is liberating because it is a beautifully simple proposition, and thus the complexity of nasty trade-offs – between those who go to university and those who don’t, between generations, between different sorts of universities, between disciplines and courses, between funding higher education and funding a zillion other priorities – is washed away by the dazzling premise. Free.

Alas, there is a problem. Once upon a time, a British university education was for the very few. The state, in the form of the general taxpayer, footed the bill. Now, around 40 per cent of 18- to 19-year-olds are at university and nobody in front-line politics is keen on hauling down the number, notwithstanding the occasional hyperventilating headline about useless degrees in golf course management or surfing studies.

The Liberal Democrats’ ill-fated 2010 manifesto had a little-noticed passage that called for scrapping the participation target of 50 per cent – alongside the now ritual aspiration to improve vocational training and apprenticeship schemes, a promise that is yet another reminder of a long-established and debilitating British weakness that nobody seems to know how to reverse. But mass higher education is here to stay – and it’s a good thing, too.

We could have chosen (and could still choose) both to fund increasing numbers of people going to university and to pay for all of their tuition, but that would not have been a self-funding investment – at least, not for a very long time. Other European countries with decent universities have indeed managed without asking graduates to contribute anywhere near as much as ours. The Swedes pay nothing for tuition. Dutch students pay a quarter of their English counterparts. The Germans have proportionately fewer students in tertiary education (though their vocational education is widely known to be heaps better), but their students are at university for longer and they pay very little for the pleasure. You get the picture.

It would require a lot of extra taxation if we were to go down that route – and there are many other competing demands beyond deficit reduction. Yet the issue is not only framed by tax priorities. We can’t easily afford to have the state picking up the tab because – an ugly fact – we are less well off than most northern European countries that charge less. Yes, we are the fifth-largest economy in the world – how could any of us, since the Brexit vote, not know that? – but we are far from being the fifth most economically prosperous country in the EU, once you allow for the intrusion of vulgar reality in the form of GDP per head. On that measure, we sit somewhere in the middle of the pack.

So who pays? Asking students to pay something is not in itself an outrage. The massive social and economic privileges that my generation accrued from our gloriously free university education may now be spread more widely but that has not eliminated the personal advantages that, on average, follow a degree. Graduates are more likely to get jobs, more likely to get better jobs and more likely to keep their jobs in a recession. The Department for Education puts the graduate premium on average at £250,000 before tax over a lifetime for women and £170,000 for men. These figures may be overstated and might not be sustained, but it is overwhelmingly likely that most graduates will still benefit materially from their degrees.

From the starting point in 2004 – long before the deficit soared – Blair and his then education secretary, Charles Clarke, decided that graduates should pay more once they began to earn sufficient money. I remember Blair at the time doing a BBC Newsnight special with an angry audience, packed with students telling him that he was wrecking their lives and had insufficient respect for their contribution to the greater good. A very articulate trainee doctor told Blair that she faced a mountain of debt (those were the days – that would now be several mountains). Blair responded with a range of left-wing arguments – at least, if you are of a redistributive frame of mind. Here are some highlights of the exchange:

Blair: I think it is unfair to ask general taxpayers – 80 per cent of whom have not been to university – when you have got an adult who perhaps wants to get an additional skill and they have to pay for it if they don’t go to university, to say to those people: we are not giving you education for free. And to say to under-fives, where we are desperately short of investment, to say to primary schools, where again we need more money, that we are going to give an even bigger subsidy to university students. Believe me, if I could say to you, “You can have it all for free,” I would love to.

The student, more than matching the prime minister’s passion, was spectacularly unimpressed.

Student: It really infuriates me that you say, “Why should the dustman fund the doctor?” When he has [a] heart attack, he will be pleased that I went to university and graduated as a doctor. Therefore he should contribute towards the cost of my degree.

Blair: But surely there should be a fair balance. He is contributing to the cost of your degree. Five-sixths of the cost of any degree, even after our proposals come in, will be contributed by the general taxpayer.

Not bad for a prime minister who was not often associated with causes dear to the dustmen part of his Labour flock – nor associated with redistribution in general. Of course, the figure of five-sixths paid for by the state is now, since the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees, a great deal smaller. The trainee doctor of 2017 is expected, over the course of their lifetime, to fork out much more. The average student debt is getting on for £50,000.

The current numbers are the result of decisions taken by Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats and David Willetts of the Conservative Party. Unlike Blair, these two men were on the left of their parties, with a firm belief in the importance of education and its positive impact on social mobility. The hike in fees led to protests and occupations but also to universities getting much of the extra money that they needed, even if they were markedly reluctant to say so, doubtless for fear of stirring up their students.

There has been no drop in the participation rate of students from poorer family backgrounds. Quite the reverse – despite Jeremy Corbyn’s personal refusal to believe the evidence. But the repayment of fees means that, in effect, recent graduates pay income tax at a rate of 29 per cent once they earn more than £21,000. (The Department for Education cheerily call this “a contribution”, as if it were voluntary.)

The repayment point could have risen with inflation to ease the load but it hasn’t. That allows the Treasury to recoup more money. Why hasn’t the £21,000 limit been raised? The reason is that, under the current IFS estimates, three-quarters of graduates will not pay back all of their debt after 30 years, at which point it is forgiven. Worse, interest rates on this fee debt are 3 per cent above inflation – and thus nearly 6 per cent above the base rate. That is not quite at Wonga levels but it is patently demoralising and much too steep.

That is far from the end of the matter. Until last September, poorer students received a maintenance grant of up to £3,400 to help with their living costs. For better- off students, the state’s supposition has always been that their parents should and would contribute financially to ensure that their offspring could lead a reasonable life while at university. No government has chosen to make this very explicit: there are only so many enemies you want at any one time on any one issue.

But as the number of students rose, so did the number entitled to the grant, and as part of the strategy to reduce the country’s Budget deficit, those grants were turned into loans, too.

The Labour Party, before Jeremy Corbyn became leader, opposed the change when it was announced but not with much elan. From my Oxford eyrie, I was astonished at how little excitement this generated. Perhaps everyone was exhausted by the failed protests five years earlier.

There is mitigation. It is worth remembering that nobody pays anything for their tuition up front (part of the Blair package, too) and some universities, including mine, have good and reliable schemes to help those from poorer backgrounds and hardship funds for those whose circumstances – normally their parents’ circumstances – change while they are studying.

But I know from direct experience that many students worry a great deal about the debt that awaits them. And if graduates were feather-bedded before 1998 (and that includes me), it is hard not to sympathise now. The debt is too much for too many.

Blair defined the problem correctly – the question of who pays is about striking a fair balance – even if Corbyn seems uninterested in the pain involved in thinking it through and has opted for the easiest answer. But what should that balance be? A graduate tax for those of us who went to university when it was both a much scarcer resource and cheap would offend people who want as little retrospection as possible in the tax system. However, it would do something to deal with generational injustice, a subject on which Corbyn’s credentials are sullied by his fondness for the “triple lock” on pensions.

Labour’s policy of telling English students that they will pay nothing for their tuition is nowhere near as left-wing as it sounds, but it was far too successful a piece of retail politics for anyone in his team to consider going back to the drawing board. So now it is the Tories, facing an energised student vote, who have to engage with the issues for the first time since the tumult of 2010. The least they can do – and they should do it fast – is cut the interest rate. They won’t want to do any of it but, as the man said, the times they are a-changing.

Mark Damazer is master of St Peter’s College, Oxford

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon