Labour and Tuition Fees

Labour should see reducing University fees as a long term goal, not a priority.


Labour should see reducing University fees as a long term goal, not a priority.

Cutting University fees is expensive. In 2015, Labour promised to spend 3bn to reduce fees from £9,000 to £6,000 and during the 2015 Labour Leadership campaign, Jeremy Corbyn upped the ante, promising to spend £7.1bn on completely abolishing tuition fees. If Labour manages to win a general election in 2020, the UK would have endured a decade of Tory underspending. Labour will not have the time or the resources to immediately heal all cuts and will have to prioritise on spending only where it will be most effective.

Tuition fees are criticised for disadvantaging poor students and of "putting people off" university. This claim has, broadly, been shown to be incorrect. For full time students, there has been a consistent rise, even for the poorest. Poorer students have, however, changed their behaviour and are now more likely to study close to home and are more likely to work during their  course. There has also been a drop in people over 20  attending university and a large drop in part time studying 

Despite the real negative consequences of tuition fees, abolishing them would be a ‘regressive’  policy primarily benefiting wealthier graduates. Student debt is only repaid when an individual earns over £21,000. The loans are also written off after 30 years so it would take a regular income of about £35,000 to completely pay off the average loan.

For poorer graduates, cutting fees would only mean they have less debt written off after 30 years have passed. A much greater injustice in the British education system is the widely divergent attainment levels for children from different class backgrounds Differences in ability are apparent from a very young age with some four-year-olds so far behind that they do not know their own names and have the social skills of a two-year-old. This gap in attainment continues to persist throughout compulsory education. In 2013/14, 33.5% of pupils eligible for free schools meals achieved 5 or more grade A*- C GCSEs (including English and Maths) compared to 60.5% of all other pupils.  

Instead of spending it on repealing tuition fees, £7bn could pay the annual salary for 300,000 newly qualified teachers at £23,000 p.a. or 411,000 Teaching assistants at £17,000 p.a. Or it could be used to build new schools; It costs somewhere between £14 and £21 million to build a school, so this £7bn could build up to 500 schools at the lower price range. This extra capacity is desperately needed to address the current population bulge and years of conservative spending squeezes. This kind of spending would also act as an economic stimulus, creating jobs and helping to heal harmful Tory austerity. But there are many other things that could help the least advantaged students more than cutting tuition fees would, from creating pre-school places to more one-to- one help, lower class sizes or incentives for the best teachers to work in failing schools. 

The focus on tuition fees drowns out other progressive ways of improving educational attainment. And yet these choices need not be dichotomous. Labour could, in theory, do both. But if Labour was to win in 2020, there will be tough choices to make. There will be limited resources and straining public services and any legislation would have to go through Parliament before it takes force. In such a constrained future, Labour must be rational and target spending carefully, based on where the money would be most effective, not on populist gimmicks or ideological albatrosses.


Ralph Parlour is a Young Fabians member. Follow him on Twitter at @Rocking_Ralph

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