With less than a month to go until the general election, the Labour party has yet to produce a coherent manifesto. Even when pushed for detail, Jeremy Corbyn (and indeed most of his shadow cabinet) has never offered more than some platitudinal declaration in support to the NHS and affordable housing. Until Wednesday, that is. On Wednesday, thanks to a suspiciously well-timed “leak”, we started to get a sense of the kind of policy a Labour government would push for if elected on June 8th. It’s a pretty dire picture.
In particular, the pledge to scrap university tuition fees sounds a lot like a last-minute attempt to lure student votes. With polls showing dwindling support among the young, it is understandable that the party would try to churn out crowd-pleasing baits in the last push before voting day – after all it’s not like anyone will have to worry about the policy’s implementation.
But regardless of whether Labour will ever have the chance to implement the plan, one really needs to call this proposal what it is: a cop-out from devising an appropriate higher education policy. The aim of any such policy should be to promote social mobility, encourage working class students to enroll in serious degrees, and provide more options for non-academically inclined students. Labour’s tuition fee assault does none of the above.
Pledging to scrap tuition fees is certainly a quick and easy fix to boost Labour’s airtime, but whoever will be tasked with defending the policy in public in the next few days will have a challenge. Serious analyses have shown time and time again that abolishing tuition fees simply doesn’t work in terms of widening access to university. It may not necessarily lead to a reduction in funding, but it does tweak universities’ incentives and capabilities in a way that results in a stricter cap on student places. As this translates into tougher entry requirements and more competition, it is not surprising that middle- and upper-class applicants (whose parents can provide them with private tuition, a better learning environment, and greater financial support) would be the first to benefit from this free education.
In this respect, Scotland is a case in point: numbers of state-school students enrolling in Scotland’s “free” universities have been growing much more slowly than in England. This isn’t surprising, since Scottish maintenance grants and non-repayable funding has dropped in recent years, with all attention and resources focussing on the lack of fees.
In fact, looking at maintenance grants and targeted funding might be a better starting point for a rather more sophisticated progressive higher education reform. Some of the best universities in Britain are also in the most expensive cities, where living costs are so high even relatively well-to-do families struggle to maintain their children. Rent in particular seems to be an issue for students in London. Devising better incentives for universities to provide more affordable accommodation for longer might be more effective than scrapping tuition fees altogether. Ditto for maintenance grants and merit scholarships targeted specifically at disadvantaged students.
Providing free education to British students may also worsen the universities’ over-reliance on tuition from international applicants (although it wouldn’t be too outlandish to presume that Labour is planning to scrap fees also for overseas students, or perhaps just Venezuelans…). This would have two potential effects, neither desirable. Either it would place a stricter cap on places for British students as universities seek more lucrative students from abroad, again making university less accessible for low-income pupils. Or – more worryingly – it could lead to a considerable drop in standards. If Brexit does result in the end of free movement and tougher immigration policies – which Labour seems willing to support – then international student numbers will fall, and universities will lose an important source of revenue. Add to this the brain-drain of academics from British universities – another consequence of Brexit – and the risk for British universities to slip behind their European and American competitors in the rankings look all too real.
The core of the issue, which Labour’s appallingly simplistic policy misses completely, is that the current funding system isn’t actually too bad. It’s effectively a graduate tax – fairer than the shark-ish American private and diversified funding system, and cheaper on the public purse than the costly and inefficient European public university system. There is surprisingly little information among students about the terms of the student loan and the opportunity for additional funding; this is a crucial issue to address in the future, and a relatively inexpensive one. Schemes to improve primary and secondary education across the country would also be welcome.
Alas, we shall expect nothing of the sort from Labour. When announcing the pledge to an adoring audience, shadow chancellor John McDonnell proudly declared that Labour doesn’t want to “burden our kids with the debt for the future”, demonstrating once again quite how abysmal the level of economic expertise is among the party’s leadership. Maybe they should all go back to university.