First my credentials. I have supported Labour at every election since I was old enough to vote. I am a party member of some 30 years standing.
Why then, as the General Secretary of the trade union for staff in further and higher education am I in such utter despair at the timidity of the policy offer made by Labour to the members I represent and their students?
Let’s be clear, I believe the coalition’s policies have been a disaster and that things would get even worse for education and working people if the Tories are returned to some form of government in May. This is why it is so crucial that Labour wakes up.
While Labour has developed an excellent critique of coalition policy it has failed completely to offer an alternative. I could have chosen a few education topics to demonstrate this, but let me focus on one – higher education funding.
Labour is right of course to say that the coalition’s tuition fees policy will lead to large scale debt for graduates and an ever increasing bill for servicing student loans for the taxpayer. But its proposal – a reduction in fees to £6,000 a year – is the worst of all possible worlds. It will leave universities facing a £2bn funding gap and make little difference to student debt levels or the amount repaid.
Chuka Umuna has said many times that if the UK wants to grow “we should take lessons from the Germans.” I agree. This year Germany abolished university tuition fees in every single state. Set against that, Labour’s “will they, won’t they” flirtation with lower fees exposes a paucity of ambition.
Labour’s rationale for such timidity is the need to be fiscally responsible – but fiscal irresponsibility is hardly something one can accuse the Germans of is it?
Considering, the coalition has introduced a system that is utterly fiscally irresponsible Labour could and should be setting out bold new ideas, not offering more of the same via a watered down cut price failed coalition policy.
The coalition’s reforms have failed. They promised £9,000 fees would be the exception rather than the rule – yet the average fee is now £8,647 and almost three-quarters of institutions in England charged the maximum amount this academic year.
George Osborne set out his first comprehensive spending review by stating that he did not wish to saddle the next generation with debts the government was not willing to pay. Yet, that is exactly what the coalition’s reforms have done.
The large amounts they have had to borrow to fund fees means the new system is likely to cost more than the one it replaced. Furthermore, thousands of students will be saddled with debts to pay when they should be considering pensions or at least investigating how unlikely getting on the property ladder is.
What makes things worse is that while Labour prevaricates, it is the Green party which has adopted my own union’s policy of increasing corporation tax to ensure free tuition fees. Our largest corporations benefit from the plentiful supply of graduate labour and yet pay little towards its upkeep, leaving the state and the student to shoulder the bill.
A Business Education Tax would still leave the UK with the lowest corporation tax rate by far of any of the G8 and is hugely popular with the staff and students whose votes Labour needs to win in key marginal constituencies.
Labour talks about the next election being a “big choice” and the leader speaks of taking on “vested interests”. Yet, the current message to students, parents and staff is not “big” by any definition and nor does it tackle head on the elephant in the room which is the lack of contribution to higher education from its main beneficiary – large employers.
The failure to grasp this nettle means that while German and indeed Scottish young people will continue to enjoy free university tuition, the next Labour government seems to be proposing that young people in England will still face the highest public university fees in Europe.
Such timidity in education policy is one reason why other parties have made ground in the core Labour vote. My union will continue to build relationships with all those who believe that education is a right, not a privilege. We want that to be Labour as well. So come on, no half measures, take some bold steps.
Sally Hunt is the General Secretary of the University and College Union (UCU)