This article is more than 1 year old

Where is Labour going on fees?

This article is more than 1 year old

Jack Ballingham is a member of the Labour Party's National Policy Forum

Keir Starmer’s New Year speech given on the 5th of January 2022 was not particularly notable for its education policy content (despite the fact the location chosen was a UCL research facility).

Other than a passing reference to universities and young people as examples of the UK’s “spirit”, the speech focused instead on two main policy announcements – the proposed Great British Energy, and a transfer of power to the local level under the strapline of “Take Back Control”.

Rather, the main point of interest for education policy came in response to a question afterwards from a Times journalist, who asked whether Starmer was still committed to the abolition of university tuition fees.

Starmer avoided a solid answer. He said tuition fees “aren’t working”, but that the economic turmoil meant election pledges would need to be costed – “with discipline”, no less.

Don’t have a cow, man

There have been periodic bursts of anxiety over the tuition fee commitment since Starmer became leader in 2020, anxiety which seems justified – Wes Streeting apparently told a Shadow Cabinet meeting in April 2021 that “every day, we should drag a sacred cow of our party to the town market place and slaughter it until we are up to our knees in blood”.

Multiple “sacred cows” of Corbyn-era policy have gone to the chopping block in the last three years, including nationalisation of utilities, abolition of private schools and corporation tax hikes.

The recent rhetoric around “NHS reform” seems to be another exercise in this. However, rail nationalisation and ending private schools’ charity tax breaks remain – hence anxiety, rather than simple outrage, over fees.

In 2021, nine months after becoming leader, Starmer confirmed abolishing fees was party policy, though in June 2022 the Mail reported he was preparing to ditch the commitment.

Despite this, at the UUK conference in September that year the Shadow Higher Education Minister, Matt Western, said that abolishing fees was still policy. Starmer’s latest comments give rise to further uncertainty on the question.

Bridget Phillipson seems to be following the same line, refusing to say whether Labour would abolish fees or not in an interview with the Yorkshire Post, though, like Western in September, and Starmer in January, said the fee system was “broken”.

Beyond this, you’d be hard pressed to work out what the Shadow Education Secretary’s position on fees (or most other HE policy) is – her conference speech in 2022 hardly mentioned higher education, focusing instead on childcare and early years (as has the majority of her work).

Paul Waugh has argued that this is a better alternative, though exactly how childcare policy can be substituted for HE reform is unclear.

Internal battles

The sense of some behind the scenes shadow cabinet grappling is hard to escape, just as it has been before.

Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, in July 2022, said outright that nationalisation of rail was no longer party policy at all. On the same day, Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh publicly said the exact opposite.

Presumably, Haigh won that particular debate – her conference speech recommitted the Party to nationalisation two months later.

There may be some similar internal bartering going over tuition fees, perhaps with the leadership on one side and soft-left shadow ministers like Western on the other.

It would fit with the previous trend – with the left of the party excluded from the shadow cabinet, remaining soft left ministers like Haigh, and perhaps now Western, seem to be fighting a quiet rearguard action.

But what other considerations are likely to factor in coming to a decision on tuition fees? A simplistic wish to distance the party from its Corbyn-era image may be a factor to some extent, though far from the only one.

The party’s broader economic strategy when it enters government now seems to be a far cry from the high levels of spending promised five years ago – in his speech Starmer claims that taxes are already too high to be raised much further, and says that Labour won’t be getting out a “big chequebook” in government.

On the other hand, so much of the party’s messaging lately has revolved around economic growth (Starmer last year said that Labour would fight the next election on the issue) that higher education cannot possibly be sidelined.

The sector’s contribution to R&D and the economy generally is enormous. Whether Labour chooses to abolish fees or not, Starmer will surely need to increase resources to the sector in some way.

Public image limited

Besides the quiet struggles of the shadow cabinet, there is also the much more public struggle in the party at large. Labour’s activist base remains largely committed to abolishing tuition fees, especially its youth and student members – at the last set of internal elections, candidates from the left wing of the party won majorities on the national committees of both Young Labour and the newly reformed Labour Students, at a time when the left struggled to get its candidates elected to other bodies.

A combination of bureaucratic obstructionism, either within their own structures or from the national party machine, has so far kept these bodies from harrying Starmer too much. Despite this, student labour clubs at almost thirty universities (officially unaffiliated to the party and thus unbound by bureaucracy), as well as a majority of the Labour Students national committee, recently petitioned the leadership, requesting they re-affirm the commitment to fee abolition.

Dissatisfaction among the party’s young members may be a harbinger of wider trends. Labour in its current position draws an enormous portion of its voter base from young voters – YouGov estimates 56% of those under 24 backed the Party in 2019 (with Labour leading among voters up to the age of 40). The spectre of the Liberal Democrats’ fate in 2015 after backtracking on their pledge to oppose fee increases should be a cautionary tale.

Labour’s solid youth vote may now be more vulnerable than it looks, only three years after the Corbyn “youthquake”. Strong local Green Party performances in heavily student-populated cities suggest the potential for a future challenge – the Greens’ vote share in the most recent local elections (either 2022 or 2021 depending on local authority) reached 32% in Bristol, 29% in Norwich, 22% in Exeter, 21% in Sheffield, 18% in both Oxford and Cambridge, 14% in Liverpool and 11% in Leeds and Manchester.

The Greens are now part of the administration in three student-heavy authorities – Brighton, York and Lancaster. Leicester and Nottingham, not having held city council elections since 2019, could be bellwethers to watch this May.

Positions vacant

But what should Labour do? The party will need a position on fees, if it is to deal with a higher education sector that is currently reliant on tuition fee revenue, both from undergraduates (both home, and their even more expensive international counterparts), and increasingly from lucrative postgraduate taught courses, especially in areas like business studies.

The current model means universities must maximise revenue from tuition fees, encouraging an extreme expansion that is completely unsustainable – the housing crisis in many university cities is a testament to this. Preserving the system as it exists now is not a tenable position, unless the Labour Party wants to plant a time bomb underneath the sector (and itself).

The party leadership must know this – if they didn’t, there’s little reason they wouldn’t have pronounced the prior tuition fee commitment dead some time ago. Shadow ministers seem to still be working out a position, and short of fee abolition, any mixture of reduced fees, graduate taxes, reintroduction of maintenance grants (to varying degrees), or shifting repayment terms is likely to be the result. But will these measures solve the contradictions within the sector, and benefit students?

Students from lower-income backgrounds have a worse experience than their wealthier peers. They are more affected by high private (and university) rents, and more often take on part-time work to help with this (with knock-on effects on study).

This is just one example, and effects like this has come in large part from the fact that universities have put such extreme pressure on their local communities and services.

Maxing out the capacity of university cities in pursuit of fee revenue has wrecked local markets and sent rents skyrocketing. Introducing (generous) maintenance grants would be a great leap in alleviating this, but it would do little to alter the root cause – like topping up a leaky bucket instead of patching up the holes.

Without wholesale fee reform, there is a danger that maintenance support will continue to function essentially as a landlord subsidy.

When university vice chancellors (led by Sunderland’s David Bell) said that an increase in tuition fees was needed to keep universities running, the worst part of it was that they weren’t wrong.

On the current model, it is needed – this is precisely the problem. A policy that considers even a moderate reduction in tuition fees will need to provide an alternative source of revenue for the sector. Indeed, even keeping fees as they are will require more funding.

One possible solution, which would have been the answer five years ago, is direct taxation.

But, as we have seen, Keir Starmer appears unwilling to embrace such a strategy of high taxes – and thus, we are back to the beginning.

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