On Friday 27th October in an LBC interview with Sadiq Khan, Jeremy Corbyn made the bold claim that if he had been elected into office, tuition fees would have already been abolished for colleges, universities and adult education. So why has he been on the receiving end of so much abuse for ‘breaking his tuition fee promise’?
In order to figure out the source of all this anger among young people, we need to go all the way back to the release of the Labour manifesto shortly after the May snap election was called. In the manifesto, Labour clearly laid out their plans for the future of higher education, and stated that ‘Labour believes all education should be free, and we will restore this principle’ before going on to outline plans to ‘reintroduce maintenance grants for university students’ and ‘abolish university tuition fees’.
"The abolition of tuition fees for current university students would still leave them paying back their debt"
So why is everyone so angry? The trouble is, Labour didn’t make it particularly clear who this new policy would and (importantly) wouldn’t apply to, leading to some people accusing Corbyn and his team of u-turning on the policy. The people who are the most annoyed seem to be recent graduates, who have been saddled with over £50,000 worth of debt since the introduction (by the Conservatives) of the £9,000 per year fees in 2012. These people now realise that the abolition of tuition fees for current university students would still leave them paying back their debt, while younger students can prance off into a debt-free sunset.
So that’s one reason why Jeremy Corbyn is getting a heck of a lot of stick from graduates for his ‘free education for all’ policy, but there’s also a reason why current students might be thinking twice about voting Labour based solely on a ‘free tuition fees’ promise. You might not know this, but general elections are usually held every five years (even if it feels as if we’ve been trotting off to the polling booth every two weeks), which means that the next opportunity to elect Corbyn as Prime Minister will technically be 2022 - by which time most current students will have graduated, and will have automatically become ineligible for free tuition fees.
So while the Labour Party haven’t made a u-turn on one of their key manifesto pledges, current students and graduates alike are starting to realise that the free education utopia might be a little further from their grasp than they were led to believe in the run up to the 2017 general election. But that doesn’t mean that they should turn away from Labour.
Younger generations are (on the whole) passionate about equality and fairness, and are far more likely to be liberal than their parents. According to a YouGov survey, 66% of 18-19 year olds who voted voted for Labour in the general election, and it would be patronising to think that the vast majority did so in the hope of getting a debt that 70% of people never actually pay back wiped. I’d like to think that graduates and current university students would continue to vote for the Labour Party not because of grand promises to improve the lives of individuals, but because it aims to be ‘for the many, not the few’.
"Jeremy Corbyn didn’t break his tuition fee promise ... but maybe he should"
I’m not suggesting that the current university fees system is perfect, not by a long way, but is scrapping tuition fees completely the way forward? Fees were initially introduced by a Labour government in 1998, with students being required to pay up to £1000 a year for tuition. Fast-forward to 2017, and students heading off to university now could be looking at upwards of £9250 a year for their degrees, with maintenance grants scrapped and turned into loans and a graduate jobs market that is more competitive than it has ever been before. University degrees have turned into commodities, students have been made into customers and universities have become marketised. Add to this the proposed introduction of fee bands, with higher performing universities allowed to charge more than lower performing ones, and a clear class divide becomes apparent. Customers (sorry, students) would be forced to choose between a higher ranking university (and therefore a better name on a CV and more chance of employment on graduation) that charges more, and a lower ranking university, with fewer employability prospects but less overall debt. We already know that students from poorer backgrounds are less likely to go to university, and that they drop out more frequently than those of middle or upper class backgrounds, and introducing fee bands would only increase the disparity between education levels. Clearly, the current system is utterly broken, but what's the solution?
The trouble with free tuition fees is that, all too often, it only benefits those who are already better off in society. Just take a look at Scotland, where students from poorer backgrounds graduate university with £8000 more debt than their richer counterparts, as bursaries have decreased and living cost loans have increased. University needs to be made more accessible for all. Bring back maintenance grants for students from poorer backgrounds. Reduce fees to £6000 to lower the amount of debt young graduates are saddled with. Make the idea of higher education more appealing to students from lower-income backgrounds. Use the money that would be written off in thirty years on improving early years education, changing perspectives on vocational qualifications and doing our best to break down barriers to higher education for those less fortunate than ourselves.
Jeremy Corbyn didn’t break his tuition fee promise in the way that the media has laid out over the past few weeks, but maybe he should think about whether or not scrapping tuition fees is the right way forward. 2022 is a long way away yet, and if he plans to keep current graduates on his side until the next election, then his policies might need a rethink.
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