The £6,000 question

As the shockwaves reverberate, Mark Leach takes a look at the reaction in the press, sector, political parties and in early public opinion to Labour's plan to lower fees to £6,000.
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It has now been three days since the announcement  that Labour would lower fees to £6,000, and there have been some interesting reactions to the plan. Three particularly stand out as immediately important – although they are far from alone: the public, the sector and the Lib Dems.

The public

Published on Sunday, The Times‘ excellent Redbox commissioned a snap YouGov poll, looking for views of the policy shortly after it was announced. 64% of those asked approved of the policy, 20% were against it, 16% were don’t knows. Those surveyed were also asked whether the fees policy had shown a positive or negative effect in four areas:

  • the universities themselves (positive net score, +20 per cent),
  • the government’s finances (+11),
  • students from poor background (-44)
  • students from well-off backgrounds (0)

times poll fees 6k wonkhe

Details of The Times poll on 1st March

So it seems the attacks on the Labour policy about it not benefiting students from poor backgrounds have cut through – but Labour has so far won the argument about what’s best for universities and the wider economy, which is a significant victory for a party that has been struggling since the crash on its perceived handling of public finances. If these numbers are broadly accurate (we’ll have to wait and see them repeated elsewhere), then Labour’s political calculation that despite all its detractors, the £6,000 fee policy would be a net positive, appears to have been the right one.

Update – 3rd March

The Times has updated their polling on lower tuition fees and found support slipping, following the media onslaught over the last couple of days. 49% are now in favour and 31% against. They asked:

“From what you have seen or heard about the proposed cut to tuition fees, do you think the following groups would be better or worse off financially, or would it make no difference to them?”

And found:

Net 37 per cent of the public think that students who go on to earn a very high salary will be better off under the new policy; for students who go on to an average salary it’s net 26 per cent, and for students who only achieve a low salary, it’s down to net 22 per cent.

times poll 3rd march

Details of The Times poll on 3rd March

The Lib Dems

The second important development over the weekend was the Liberal Democrats’ Ed Davey telling Radio 5 that his party would attempt to block the move to lower fees in any coalition negotiations. He called the policy ‘stupid’ and ‘a total waste of money’. Davey is not alone in this criticism of the policy, but it is significant that (at least some) senior Lib Dems would potentially rather not enter a coalition with Labour than implement the lower fee – which is the ultimate effect of this position. Miliband has made the policy a ‘cast iron guarantee’ and a ‘red line’ in coalition negotiations from his side. So the two parties could reach an impasse over the issue if they were ever to sit down and attempt to form a coalition.

Although the Lib Dems are committed to the £9,000 fee at this election (they could not feasibly make another u-turn), they also state that they want higher education fees to face a fresh review in the next parliament. So they’ve ruled out fees being lowered on their watch – will they also rule out a rise? And if they did, then just what exactly is the purpose of their review?

The commentariat

The Sundays were full of negative opinion about the policy. The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsely makes a convincing case against such examples of ‘retail politics’ of which he writes that all parties are now guilty. The Mail on Sunday had an unconvincing piece about Labour’s so called ‘civil war’ over the policy. It’s clear that there has been internal disagreement, but such language is hopelessly off the mark. Iain Martin in The Telegraph has the strongly-worded ‘The tuition fees face shows Labour isn’t ready to govern’. Camilla Cavendish in The Sunday Times is also opposed: ‘Behind the tuition fees bribe, Labour is turning universities into vassals’.

Despite the rights and wrongs of some of these criticisms, Labour hopes that the policy will reach beyond the opinion pages of national newspapers and speak to young people and parents directly. The policy is now a key part of the message they will bring to the doorsteps as the campaign heats up significantly. And if the snap YouGov poll is to be believed, then the strategy may in fact prove successful for the party.

The sector

It is clear that the policy was not designed as a serious attempt to deal with the wider issues associated with higher education finance. Although Labour claim some benefits for the sector – they know that vice chancellors as a demographic will not swing this election. The strongest weapon in the VC’s arsenal (the big letter to The Times) has already been deployed.

Yet the policy has reassured the sector enough for them to, by-and-large, step out of its way for now.

Introducing the policy in 2016 for ‘all students’ (including second years) goes some way to dealing with the concern that it would have serious effect on demand in 2015 if there was to be just one cohort to face the full £9,000 fee. Some applicants will defer in September, but with the difference only being £3,000 for the full life of their course, probably not the vast amounts that was causing such worry.

The pension tax switcharoo does, on the face of it, replace the lost income from fees (IFS agree) and we understand the cash will make a return via the teaching grant. So not 100% ideal for those that were hoping to see upwards pressure on the cap, and sharper marketisation, but things could be far worse. One senior sector leader described the policy to me as ‘barmy’ but ‘basically ok’. There was significant relief that the policy is being ‘fully funded’ – although this was never really in doubt if Labour were going to go ahead with the policy of having a lower fee cap. But the method is far more convincing than many in the sector had expected it to be.

Indeed, the very fact that there has been such disagreement in Labour about how to pay for the policy is convincing in itself of the power of the move – Ed Miliband has staked a great deal of capital on the policy and has forced his colleagues to come up with the cash to back him. Vice chancellors should be pleased that they have ended up on the right side of this very public (if slightly barmy) battle.

Some unanswered questions

Making policy when in opposition is tricky. You ‘campaign in poetry and govern in prose’ as Mario Cuomo famously said. The big sweeping moves you make to win an election rarely carry the level of thought and detail that as a policy expert, or sector interest, you might want. We see this repeated across most policy areas, under every political party. IFS have done a valiant attempt of analysis of the policy from a financial perspective which is worth a read.

But there are of course things we don’t know and won’t about the policy and its effects until well in to its actual design, and some things we won’t know until well in to its implementation. Partly because not everything has been thought of, and partly because Labour will want to keep some room for manoeuvre in an area like this which is bound up with so many wider macro-economic and political questions – many of which are necessarily unanswered before an election.

However there are some interesting policy questions to consider about the shape of the period ahead if Labour win. Here are some, but there are plenty more:

Student number controls

I think it is fairly safe to assume that these will make up a comeback in some form under a Labour government. Sector leaders have been briefed as much and as Liam Byrne has talked increasingly of HEFCE’s role as a ‘strategic commissioner’, we can assume that Labour would bring a new (or old) approach to delivering HE that goes beyond the headline undergraduate fee cap. I wrote on the live blog on Friday:

The number controls will probably be framed in a different way to old school SNCs, but the sector is now expecting to have to respond to measures that use student numbers to meet policy imperatives of a future Labour administration. For example places could be set aside in different ways to incentivise delivery of lower cost courses, accelerated degrees and provision delivered through FE.

Indeed, FE may need particular help given that their previously much cheaper offer will now face downwards market pressure and so could struggle to compete with better-resourced HEIs. Labour also believes that more higher education should be delivered through further education colleges – particularly where this expands vocational education at a higher level.

There’s no real detail about any of this of course, but all this gives us a better understanding of the character of a future Labour government’s approach to HE more broadly. I.e. not only do they want lower fees for the reasons Ed Miliband set out today, they also want what comes with increased public funding: a greater ability to shape higher (and further) education to meet their wider policy ambitions.

Alternative providers

One of the interesting things about the policy is that quite by accident, it could create a sort of neo-Willetts ‘level playing field’ as APs had until now been capped at £6,000. They had been lobbying to have it increased to match the rest of the sector – one of central objectives of forming the new mission group ‘The Association of Independent Universities’ – the new body that is to represent the respectable end of the private sector. Will Labour seek to force down their cap to say £4,000 to match the downwards pressure of the sector’s cap? It’s possible. But caught up with wider questions of regulation, numbers, funding and everything else, don’t expect clarity about this until Labour sits down with civi servants to formulate its big HE package, if it takes the reigns of power in a few weeks time.

Regulation, odds and ends

What happens to OFFA’s access agreements which theoretically regulates the difference between £6,000 and £9,000? Will we need a new mechanism to regulate access? With HEFCE’s role as funder possibly largely restored (against previous expectations), which new powers do they now need and how will this effect the many different moves already afoot to deal with regulation inside the sector?

Will Labour give an equally eye-catching policy package for further education? FE has suffered badly in the last few years, but rarely makes the headlines in the same way as HE. And they’re set to lose out further as their ‘lower cost’ HE offer would struggle to compete with better-resourced universities delivering more in a similar price bracket. And even if Labour lose the election – with so much more money to come out of the BIS budget, FE are likely to feel the squeeze the hardest. Remember earlier on in this parliament, Ed Miliband talked about a refocussing of education and skills policy on to ‘the other 50%’ i.e. those that do not already go to university. There is Labour policy on apprenticeships, but nothing has really been articulated yet that could save further education from disaster.

If Labour wins in May, then the period following the election will be the moment where the various factions in the sector will be able do the most influencing and there is likely to be an extremely frenetic period of policymaking to ensure everything is firmly put place in time to lower the fee for September 2016. It will be the most critical moment facing the sector since the period following the 2010 General Election and Browne Review. I’d hold off booking your summer holidays – just 65 days to go.

UPDATE: 

If you were in doubt about Labour’s intention to politicise HE fees at the election, they have published a dossier this morning showing Conservative/Lib Dem positions on fees which they claim point to a potential Tory fee rise of £15,000 or higher. Download it here.

Elsewhere:

Our story on the 6k policy – everything we know so far.

The live blog of Friday’s announcement which includes much more detail and reaction. 

Some early commentary:

A small sigh of relief?

Labour’s HE funding plan – why raiding my tax break is a good idea

4 responses to “The £6,000 question

  1. Surprised that the OP seems to think that the only possible purpose of a review would be to decide whether fees go up or down.

  2. What I meant is that if you’ve set a condition that the fee level can’t move, then it’s not a proper review because its hands are completely tied. And so ultimately pointless.

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