On Labour’s financially illiterate tuition fee proposals

At the height of the tuition fees debacle, I seriously considered leaving the Liberal Democrats. At one time, I even considered joining the Labour Party. Yes, I was that annoyed/frustrated/angry – but it didn’t take too much thinking for me to come to the conclusion that being in the fire would be even worse than staying in a rather warm frying pan.

I passionately believe that higher education needs to be funded in a way that acknowledges the overwhelming public good that comes from having a substantial number of people in our economy who are highly skilled and more importantly, having people around who are able to think critically and innovate.

Access to higher education is a significant driver of social mobility. In the 1980s, I was the first person in my family to attend university. The opportunities provided by my degree have helped me immeasurably. Having a degree has also meant that I’ve paid substantially more in tax over my working life than I would have otherwise done. But that’s the way it should be. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put it – “I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilisation.”

For these reasons, I believe that we need a government which will develop policies for higher education to encourage people of all ages (not just the young) to study. As few barriers as possible should be put in the way of those who wish to take up this opportunity. Financial or social, real or imaginary barriers – it doesn’t matter. Pulling up the drawbridge on higher education betrays individuals by removing opportunity, as well as being economically illiterate.

The current fees system isn’t one that I like. The consequence of  the near trebling of the fee cap has undoubtedly been the catastrophic decline in opportunity for mature and part-time students. Young people may not have been put off higher education, but an important section of the population (part-time study accounted for nearly 40% of all students before the last election) has been. For this reason I still want to see a higher education system funded from a fair, general taxation system – the absolute opposite of what the Conservatives wish to see.

If you accept that you have to get to this goal a step at a time, then the fairest way to achieve it isn’t to make stepwise cuts to the headline tuition fee. That’s simply a political stunt that only helps better off graduates (*). Hardly fair and progressive and is, as Martin Lewis succinctly points out, a financially illiterate policy.

No – the right way, the fair way to get there is to raise the threshold at which repayments start (+), helping poorer graduates first. Which is interestingly enough what the Liberal Democrats have managed to achieve in government against the background of both of the other major parties simply wanting to raise fees as the Browne Report (commissioned by Labour) suggested.

I therefore hope that the Liberal Democrats are going to suggest raising this threshold at a rate above inflation in the 2015 manifesto. It certainly won’t repair the damage of a broken promise from 2010, but the incoherence of Labour’s policy announcement today provides a new opportunity to demonstrate that we care about social justice, even if the other parties don’t.



(*) I’m pretty sure that this policy announcement won’t help the Labour Party. The electorate isn’t stupid, and you’d have to be really stupid to think that cutting the headline fee was better financially for poorer graduates than raising the repayment threshold.

(+) It’s why the Liberal Democrat policy of raising the personal tax allowance is also so much better than re-introducing a 10% starting tax rate, as Labour have suggested.


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