Labour’s tuition fee plan isn’t the answer. By Oliver Summers

February has been a busy month, with the first week starting off with a letter in The Times from Universities UK (UUK) warning against Labour’s proposed policy of capping undergraduate tuition fees in England from £9,000 to £6,000. Then after a bit of a fracas on tax avoidance, and Boots boss bashing in the middle, we’ve now come back full circle to Labour’s tuition fees policy as Lord Mandelson cautioned Labour to wait until after the General Election before making a commitment on tuition fees.

Whilst Labour’s hints of policy are the current focus on the issue of tuition fees, it’d be particularly amiss to overlook the other political parties’ ambiguity on the issue as well. The Coalition parties have remained equally noncommittal on tuition fees and the future of the £9,000 cap. In contrast the minority parties have clearer positions, the Greens have the aim of free higher education and UKIP have proposed that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and Medicine courses will be free to study, provided graduates work and pay tax for 5 years. This ambiguity in policy of the big three parties has its roots not only with the uncertainty of the next spending review, but with the Lib Dems 2010 promise of scrapping tuition fees. Who then went onto trebling them in coalition government, poisoning the well of universities fees policy. If the next government is a hung parliament resolving in a three or more party coalition, it’s possible that history may repeat itself at the expense of the Greens or UKIP.

In the mix of trying to gain clarity on Labour’s position, one potential tactic would be to confine the £6,000 fees cap to STEM degrees. This would have the dual benefit of having a radical higher education policy to attract young people leaning towards the Greens, whilst also appearing economically credible. An across the board subject fee cap is estimated to cost £2 billion per annum, £10 billion over the course of the next parliament that either has to be found with extra taxes or further public spending cuts. So it seems that a STEM course focus could reduce the cost of the policy, and promote subjects that provide skills for the future economy, a potential ‘win-win’.

However this is mistaken, STEM courses cost universities more than what they charge and so already receive public subsidy. A fee cut would put even more pressure on squeezed university budgets and require a further subsidy to prevent universities from reducing their STEM courses. Nick Hillman, Director of Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), points out that some STEM graduates are to an extent fairly well paid, fitting with the wider concern that a £6,000 cap will benefit the richer.

Hillman also raises the valid of point that encouraging STEM study should be more focused at school level rather than higher education, especially with the lack of diversity in non-biological subjects. There’d be no point having cheaper tuition fees for STEM courses if people wouldn’t be interested in studying them at A level. This STEM focus also raises debates about whether or not subject, such as STEM, humanities, and social science are better, more important, or useful than others. This consequentially revitalises CP Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ divide, whilst further undermining the growing emphasis on the importance of interdisciplinary research. Hopefully this reduction in STEM fees will remain as just a rumour.

However, even if the £2 billion a year was found to fund a cap of £6,000 for all subjects, there are still flaws to the idea. This year not only features the General Election, but also the first graduation of the Post-Browne reform intake of students on £9,000 fees. I’m sure some of them will be a bit miffed at the chance of missing out on having a third less tuition debt, especially if they go on to be taxpayers who have to subsidise a more generous system whilst also paying back their loan, one expensive coffee a day at a time.

Depending on when this new fee regime would be introduced, also indicates who would benefit from it. It wouldn’t be this years’ graduates, and maybe not next years, so who could gain from the lower fees cap? It’d probably be the new first year undergraduates either this year or next, and may act as an attractive siren to the current university minded 16-17 years olds that Labour want to enfranchise. Plus if it was introduced what would be the repayment system? What would be its threshold income and percentage rate? How long till the debt is written off? There’s an administrative concern to possibly having to keep track of several different (£3,000, £6,000, and £9,000 fees) loan repayment schemes.

Another subject that further muddles Labour’s position on tuition fees is the call for a graduate tax. The shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, and shadow universities minister Liam Byrne have both come out in favour of a graduate tax as a replacement in the long run, an arch that a £6,000 fee policy can fit into as a gradual movement from upfront payment of fees with loans to an after payment in taxation. There are however several hairy questions about the workability of a graduate tax, the foremost being would it be any different to what we have now?

Not really.

The current repayment system acts like a graduate tax in all but name, pay 9% above an income of £21,000 for up to 30 years. The main graduate tax proposal is the NUS idea of paying between 0.3-2.5% of income above £15,000 for 20 years, higher earners will pay a higher percent. Other concerns with a graduate tax are the issue of how universities will be funded in the short term, such as requiring higher up-front public investment or years of under investment until the revenue from the graduate tax becomes available in the long term. Plus domestic and foreign students can avoid paying the tax if they move or return abroad respectively.

Another major aspect that Labour has ignored with their focus on cutting tuition fees as a means to ‘help’ students is the main issue of maintenance, as highlighted by the UUK letter. The very party that campaigns on the cost of living crisis has failed to address the crisis in the cost of living at university. Whilst the tuition loans cover all the tuition fees, the average student rent swallows up 95% of the maintenance loan available, leaving only 5% for actual living. It is rent that is pricing students out of universities, not tuition fees. More impactful policies for students rather than a tuition fees cut could focus on private and university accommodation costs, decent wage levels for those with weekend jobs, unpaid internships and the graduate job market.

Plus with the marketisation of higher education there are students (including myself) who have calculated how much each lecture/seminar/practical session costs, especially when they’ve been cancelled! This marketisation has turned students into customers of universities, creating a disproportionate focus between what students are getting out of HE, and what they are paying for it. The customer’s primary focus is on universities as a ways to a means for getting a well-paid graduate job, with a bit of stereotypical student experience of a fun time thrown in for good measure. However we must remember the actual role of education in the university experience, as a way to enlightenment and intellectual enrichment. Education is a tool that can challenge our perspectives as well as form them.

Quality of teaching, substantial contact time and the importance of the student’s voice on their education should be at the heart of the university experience. This comes along with shiny facilities, good employability prospects, and a cheap pint at the student bar! Possible solutions to marry impactful education and lower living costs could include a role for online and distance learning, accreditation of  Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) or more compact timeframe for university courses.

There are big questions facing universities, such as their role in providing higher education which is being challenged with a rising emphasis on apprenticeships as an alternative route. But the most important question is how do we fund universities and support students in a sustainable way whilst in the face of continued public spending constraint? Labour’s £6,000 tuition fee cap, is a £10 billion gimmick to benefit the richest with reduced debt and upfront costs, whilst ignoring the needs of the students in a cost of living crisis. Ed Balls and Ed Miliband have locked themselves into their own red room of pain, going through “tortuous and difficult” lengths in figuring out how they will fund the cut. If they commit to this policy it will just go to show that Labour doesn’t understand the question, let alone have the right answer.

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