During the course of the election campaign, many students were enthused by Labour’s commitment to end tuition fees. Labour even went one step further by saying they would write off existing student debt, with Angela Rayner, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn himself all suggesting they were looking into the costs and planning on doing it if elected. Labour, in government, got tuition fees absolutely spot on. They need to stay, but be reduced.
The last Labour government had an opportunity to massively expand further education, and to encourage more young people from lower income families to attend university and create a life that was different from that in which they grew up in. This developed the bursary system that allowed these people to help pay their way through university, with much more ease. As was part of the Blair government’s reshaping of society, they wanted taxes to become lower for ordinary working families. So the question was asked about who should pay for university tuition: the janitors and the cleaners, for example, or the graduates themselves? Bearing in mind that, on average, graduates earn much more than non-graduates. The £3000 mark was set as a small contribution, that would aim to incentivise university education and allow extra money to be available in improving the lives of working class families.
Tuition fees encouraged more young people from low income families for a number of reasons. The cultural deprivation suffered by working-class families was in evident in the primary and secondary education systems. Research has shown that a culturally rich early life significantly improves the eventual grades a child will achieve. With the significant amounts of money that the government were paying due to tuition fees, there was less money available for early years. With the introduction of fees payable by students, when they are able to, allowed Labour to introduce things like Sure Start, tax credits and the National Childcare Strategy.
With these ambitious and progressive legislation in place, the wide gap between the children of lower income and higher income families could be tackled. The sociological research of Bernstein and Young in 1967 found that middle-class parents were more likely to buy educational toys and books to help stimulate the mind which, in turn, allows the child to enter the education system with a head start to working-class children. In the houses of these children, there tended to be none of these types of toys and books. This could be a lack of income to afford, or a lack of understanding. With the legislation set forward to help families, it gave working class children the exposure to these items, thus giving them a step forward in life.
The £3000 mark worked well. More and more lower income young people entered university and thus entered those higher income professions. If they graduated but didn’t reach the financial ability to be able to pay it back, then they didn’t. When Labour lost power, the coalition government trebled fees to the £9000, which Labour rightly opposed. What the Corbyn leadership have offered is a complete withdrawal of the decent work that the last Labour government undertook. Tuition fees are entirely progressive, but at the right margin. The Tories have scrapped the grants, and developed a system whereby student loans are not as widely available. 8% of working-class young people drop out because they cannot afford to pay their way beyond two years.
A fairer system is needed, but that is not scrapping fees altogether. Completely scrapping them would leave a black hole in the economy, and leave less money to be radical in other areas of society. They have begun to realise that wiping out existing student debt is going to be a huge task, that would be far too expensive, and we are in one of politics’ strangest positions, whereby the opposition are breaking electoral promises. One of the few things Ed Miliband got right in the 2015 manifesto, was the acceptance that tuition fees needed to rise. Inflation means prices rise, which means a rising cost of living. £6000 was the right position to hold, but bursaries, grants, and student loans need to be at the forefront of Labour policy.