Lowering tuition fees is a step in the right direction - ignore the vice-chancellors

If the £9,000 fees deterred even one bright student from attending a university and fulfilling their potential, then this coalition's hike in fees has been a travesty. 

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Open the newspapers this morning and it’s almost as if the commentators have, like Mary Portas, undergone a broad-sweeping review of the UK. But replaced high streets with social mobility kiosks in universities. “Disadvantaged students not deterred from higher education,” they declare. “Disadvantaged students going to universities in record numbers,” they add.  They talk about “disadvantaged students” in a way not too far removed from how the aristocracy spoke of 19th century colonial subjects – the “other”.  The voices of these disadvantaged students are entirely absent from these columns. Instead we have an array of lucratively paid vice-chancellors, columnists whose parents probably paid more for their sixth form boarding education than their university tuition and the Tories heckling that poorer students will be worse off  - as if they have overnight transformed into champions of the working-class.  

Some commentators will add that the middle class and higher earners will benefit.  Did they conveniently side step what has been happening for the last five years under this coalition – and what might happen in the next five? The Tories are unashamedly throwing moneybags at pensioners in marginal constituencies, while threatening to cut benefits for eighteen-to-21-year-olds and force them to work for free. But reducing tuition fees by a third has been construed as an attack on the poor.

And here’s a surprise no one expected: university vice-chancellors collectively lambasting the Labour leader for his “regressive” policy. In the year that students were hit with the £9,000 fees, a fifth of university leaders received increases of 10 per cent more than in the previous academic year. Michael Farthing, the vice-chancellor of Sussex University added earlier this week that Labour’s plans were “reckless”. An interesting detail: since the tripling of tuition fees, Farthing’s own annual pay has swelled - from £227,000 to £280,000.  Britain boasted some of the world’s leading higher education institutions under no fees, under (relatively) low fees and now continues to do so, with high fees. To suggest that cutting fees will somehow plummet our universities in to an academic abyss is misleading.

Labour has announced there will be no funding gap.  By amending the rules that allow savers to take 25 per cent of their pension pots tax free , the shadow Treasury team could fund the gap. The Pensions Policy Institute has already signalled that capping tax free withdrawals to £36,000, could save the treasury £2bn, roughly the cost of the tuition fee cut. And this is a policy that only affects those with the largest of pension pots.

The announcement to reduce university tuition from £9,000 to £6,000 is a step in the right direction. It is a small victory for the grass-roots student activism that was revived in 2010. Yes, there are undoubtedly crude political benefits of such a policy: with the polls looking grim, and no predictable outcome, a commitment from Labour to cut tuition fees is crucial in retaining the support of disaffected young Lib Dems. With the Greens offering free education, Labour has had to seriously consider how to woo young voters.  But this policy has stemmed from student activism. From those students who defied their vice-chancellors, occupied lecture theatres on university campuses and threatened with legal action.

While they were campaigning for free education (the only policy in my mind that will tackle the chronic lack of working-class people in the media, politics, law and hundreds of other professions) – this step by the Labour party needs to be viewed as one on the trajectory to free education. The shadow university minister, Liam Bryne, admits that the current scenario is not ideal. He is an advocate of a graduate tax - so, no upfront fees.  When I met him earlier this week in Portcullis House he admitted that free education would be “nice” but it's not something that will happen overnight. 

For disadvantaged students there is a huge psychological difference between £9,000 and £6,000 fees. If the £9,000 fees deterred even one bright student from attending a university and fulfilling their potential, then this coalition's hike in fees has been a travesty. 

This policy is a rare message from Westminster to the young, disillusioned A-level students about to embark on their university career: politics is on their side. 

Ashley Cowburn writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2014. He tweets @ashcowburn