As a Labour supporter who is soon approaching the time when tuition fees will become a big part of my life, you might assume that I would be very supportive of Labour’s move to reduce fees from £9000 per year to £6000 a year. This should be right up my alley. I’m a lefty who has been pushing for Labour to unveil policies that are both traditionally left wing and also appeal to a large amount of voters (e.g. renationalising the railways), and reducing tuition fees seems like a perfect example of finding this happy middle.
However, the more I’ve read about reducing tuition fees, the more convinced I’ve become that it is a bad idea. The main problem I have with the policy is that it is one that is fundamentally regressive. Imagine I proposed the following system: people who graduate from university should pay a tax, where a large chunk of money that is raised goes straight to the university. Only those who earn enough to be able to pay do pay, and if you don’t earn much, you don’t pay a thing. It’s a pretty decent proposal. It means that universities get more money and can teach more of the poorest people, but only at the expense of those who have used the services they offer, and only at the expense of those who can afford to pay. This proposal is essentially the current tuition fees system. As much as it has been presented as a fixed fee that can amass into a debt, the fact is that the fees work much more like a tax, and a tax that only affect the richest graduates.
One common objection to the tuition fees system is the idea that it will deter poorer people from applying to university, due to a fear that they will not be able to pay the fees, but this simply hasn’t been the case. From 2010 to 2013, the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students fell from 30.5% to 29.8%. The rise in fees certainly hasn’t deterred poorer students from applying, if anything, it has encouraged them (although the change is not that large). While I’m not a fan of the coalition government, they did make changes that helped poorer people who were considering applying to university. Universities that charged fees of over £6000 had to both accept more and offer more support to people from poorer backgrounds.
Tuition fees do not lead to people getting into large amounts of debt because their degrees did not land them with the high-paying jobs they expected, the system that the coalition government has introduced (or rather, expanded on from New Labour’s original policy) is not comparable to the American system whereby people have to save all their life for their college fees and often end up going into debt, rather, these tuition fees serve as a rich graduate tax. The IFS estimated that, assuming fees of £7,500, about half of students will pay, and they will pay at a rate of about 9%.
If you’re still not convinced, let me make one last argument. Think back to the time when there were no tuition fees, and ask yourself: was that system better for poorer people? Far fewer people went to university, and those who did tended to be very rich. Higher education was the prerogative of the wealthy, and considered completely out of the question for many of the poorest people. Now, record numbers of people are going to university, and record numbers from the poorest backgrounds too. In England, disadvantaged teens were 70% more likely to go to university in 2013 than in 2004.
The policy to reduce tuition fees might be a popular one for Labour, but it is not the right one. It is a move back to the time when university was only for the few. Labour should not be fighting for lower tuition fees, if anything, they should be fighting for higher fees.