It is 5 January, 2023. Keir Starmer stands up at the UCL East site, in London’s Olympic Park, and outlines in broad strokes his plans for the country.
Yet the headlines pick up on one thing in particular – a possible u-turn on his leadership campaign pledge to abolish tuition fees.
Nearly nine months later, Labour’s approach to higher education is still largely a mystery.
But today Public First has published the findings of our report on public attitudes to tuition fees, launched in May this year. It provides insight into what voters think about all things higher education, ahead of a likely general election sometime next year.
The party of facts
We worked with Labour-supporting think tank Progressive Britain and a coalition of universities (York, Manchester, Warwick and Greenwich) to poll 8,000 adults in England, followed up by eight focus groups across the country, focusing on students, recent graduates, and parents, with the aim of working out whether Labour was right to change its position on abolishing fees – and to work out what might come next.
Here’s what we found:
- Labour made the right decision politically on fees: Our research confirms that Labour made the right decision to move away from their pledge to abolish tuition fees. By 43 per cent to 30 per cent, respondents thought Starmer was right to scrap the pledge to abolish tuition fees. Swing voters are even more likely to think that Starmer was right, with 48 per cent saying he was right to drop the pledge, and 28 per cent saying he was wrong to do so.
- People still quite like universities, actually: On the whole, parents want their children to go to university if they get the grades to go. But universities – and higher education policy in general – is a low priority issue. This is particularly the case when up against other policy areas . More funding for universities ranked the lowest of all our education spending priorities, with only 6 per cent selecting it compared to 31 per cent for free school meals and 30 per cemy for higher pay for teachers.
- But this doesn’t mean tuition fees are popular. There’s a strong sense that university is too expensive for students, compounded by the current pressures on cost of living. We found strong, universal opposition to raising tuition fees – including in line with inflation – across all types of voters. People might not want university to be free, but they do want to see the cost reduced. There’s vindication for Ed Milliband too, with £6,000-7,500 seen as the sweet spot when it comes to how much university tuition fees should cost students .
- So where does the extra money come from? Any university finance team will tell you that inflationary pressure on the £9,250 fee cap is causing them headaches. We found that the public was not against the government providing additional funding support in some cases, most strongly when this was framed as limiting the cost increase for students. There were fairly high levels of support for employers making a contribution to the HE funding system too, with 59 per cent in support of a new levy paid by businesses to universities that train their workers.
- Do too many people go to university? Views are mixed. When we ask in general if too many people go to university, 42 per cent agree. But when we tell respondents in the poll that around 50 per cent of school leavers go on to HE, only 29 per cent say this is too high. What is clear is that there’s huge support for more investment in further education and vocational training options. As anyone who braved the Conservative Party conference at Manchester last week will know, apprenticeships were all anyone could talk about when higher education was mentioned. But there’s a reason for this – they’re incredibly popular with voters, particularly swing voters, and in some of the key constituencies Labour is aiming to win back in 2024. Some 52 per cent of those who voted Conservative in 2019 but are now leaning towards Labour consider apprenticeships the top priority for over-18 education funding.
What could Labour do next?
It’s incredibly difficult to see a world in which Labour becomes the party which increases tuition fees to £10,000 or above, even if that makes sense economically. In the short term, a system of maintenance grants was the option tested that was most likely to win Labour votes and seats across key constituencies – and people were happy for the taxpayer to foot the bill. A graduate tax, which has also been mooted, wasn’t unpopular, but support was more prevalent among younger, progressive voters who were degree-educated, and therefore more likely to already be living in strongly Labour-leaning areas like London or Manchester.
For students then, it’s likely that the system starts to get a bit more progressive. For universities, it’s much less clear. One conclusion from this is that the current fee regime – despite its flaws – isn’t going anywhere in the short-term. From a public opinion perspective, fixing the HE funding system is a low priority for an incoming government. But it’s clear that the system won’t hold forever. Given the increasing clamour for both a sustainable solution to university funding, and public support for greater investment in apprenticeships and other non-degree level vocational training routes, a(nother) more joined-up review of tertiary might not be that far away.