‘If Labour is taking no voters for granted, our silence on tuition fees can’t continue’

Alex Charilaou

It has been almost six months since Keir Starmer “moved on” from scrapping tuition fees. In the meantime, other than some vague gestures towards creating a “fairer” deal for students and graduates, there’s been a question mark at the heart of Labour’s higher education policy.

Those of us who hoped for clarity in Bridget Phillipson’s conference speech earlier this month were left disappointed. Instead of setting out our stall of how the Labour Party will fix the problems in higher education, we were given another kick of the can down the road: “We’ll change the way students pay for their time at university, so none of our young people fear the price they’ll pay for the choice they’d like”. Potentially less than a year away from the general election, this doesn’t cut the mustard.

Tuition fees do not even work

Let’s address a myth. English universities are not funded entirely by tuition fees – only 52% of their funding is from domestic and international fees, with British students paying less than half of that total. We must also remember that since tuition fees are paid upfront from the public purse, and the vast majority of graduates do not repay the loan in full (the government expects only 27% of the 2022/23 cohort will pay their full loan back), the taxpayer is already picking up the bill.

Much of the public may feel that the wasteful nature of university management isn’t their problem – that because students pay tuition fees for their education, it’s their issue how the money is spent. But this simply isn’t true. As we know, taxpayers pay for a massive proportion of British students’ education. These millions of taxpayers’ money is seldom seen by struggling students or precarious staff, but instead by layers of university bureaucrats earning up to £714k. This funding model is broken.

To be clear, tuition fees are not necessary to pay for higher education. On the contrary, the financial burden is an albatross around the neck of our universities and graduates. It does little to properly fund our education system, but does everything to put people off a university degree by threatening decades of increasing debt – especially for those from working-class backgrounds. Yes, for now, numbers of graduates are holding steady – but in an era of rising prices and falling confidence in the future, are we sure this trend will hold?

Some in the shadow cabinet have endorsed the idea of replacing tuition fees with a graduate tax. Be in no doubt – this is just as regressive. Why should people pay an additional tax for the privilege of being able to get a higher-paying job, through which they’ll pay more tax anyway? Education is a right, not a privilege, and should be free at the point of use.

We must reverse the marketisation of universities that has caused so much damage to our sector. University managements see students as little more than cash cows, competing against each other for new “customers” and praying at the nebulous altar of student satisfaction. All the while, staff’s pay and conditions are cut to the bone.

If you reduce universities down to business logic, you hollow out the very essence of it – the student-as-consumer learns to prioritise “experience” over education, and an emphasis is placed on graduate outcomes over well-rounded learning.

Labour cannot take the youth vote for granted

UCU, the largest post-school education union in the world, wants to see tuition fees abolished. NUS, representing the vast majority of Britain’s student population, wants to see tuition fees abolished. A majority of the National Labour Students Committee want to see tuition fees abolished. Students and staff stand united in the belief that tuition fees are harming our universities, our education and our economy – how long can the Labour Party ignore this?

After 13 years of Tory decimation of our public services, I’m glad that Labour is discussing a plan to rescue our failing schools and early years provision. It’s right that we undo the rot our current government has brought into under-18s education. It’s not right, however, to leave it there. Without a proper plan to fix higher education, we’re leaving half the jigsaw incomplete.

Keir Starmer is right that Labour should take no votes for granted at the next general election. To win, we must craft an offer to the electorate that’s both credible and bold. By tweaking around the edges of the fees system, we don’t address the fundamental problems it presents. Abolishing tuition fees isn’t a utopian dream: it’s a non-negotiable first step in a functional higher education system.

With that said, I don’t want us to rely on a fact and figures argument alone. There’s a question of principle here. Equal access to high-quality education is one of the foundational pillars of our welfare state: along with the right to lifelong healthcare and housing, it’s sacred. Why on earth should the Labour Party run scared from the principle of free, lifelong education?

Are we not the Party of Ellen Wilkinson and Jennie Lee – architects of free school learning and the Open University – who between them transformed our understanding of education and who it was for? Why should we not stand proud of our legacy, our century-long commitment to universality, and our duty to give children and young people in Britain every opportunity we can?

Marketisation of our universities has failed. Let’s not waste a generational opportunity. Labour must abolish tuition fees, and embrace an education system fit for the future.

If you want to join the discussion about how we change higher education for good, join me and others at the Socialist Education Association’s event in Parliament next month on reforming higher education. RSVP here.

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