Ed Miliband is giving a speech in Leeds today, outlining Labour’s tuition fee policy. In the usual Miliband way, it is heavy with hyperbole.
“This is a disaster for them and a disaster for the future of Britain too – a country where the next generation is doing worse than their parents is the definition of a country in decline.”
I should note that he’s referencing Coalition policy here, not his own (things haven’t got that bad – yet). This is a line Labour have been spinning since the rise in tuition fees to £9,000 was introduced at the end of 2010. The headline things they said about it at that time were that it would put people from poorer backgrounds off university and that it was a move to an American system. Both of these assertions turned out to be false.
The number of kids from poorer backgrounds has actually gone up since the introduction of the new system. As for the “Americanisation” of post-secondary education, lets examine both systems briefly. In America, you are required to pay the whole of your year’s tuition up front. If you don’t have it, as most people from all but the wealthiest of families will not, you have to take out a slightly modified commercial loan. Modified only in the sense that you don’t need to start repaying it until you either graduate or drop out, but after that point it becomes exactly like any other loan – in other words, you are required to pay it no matter what, even if you are unemployed, at a commercial rate. I know a nurse in New York who has to keep taking night classes only because the moment she stops taking them her debts would immediately bankrupt her, and I do mean literally, as in she would lose everything she owns.
Meanwhile in Britain, you pay nothing whatsoever up front and only have to start paying back once you earn £21,000 or more a year. So basically nothing up front and a percentage only after you start making a living wage. That’s a lot different to having the threat of bankruptcy hanging over you, I think you’ll agree.
So what’s the substance of Labour’s policy on tuition fees then? It can be summarised in one sentence: it’s the current Coalition policy basically, only the fee ceiling is £6k instead of £9k. So fees of £9k are a “disaster for the future of Britain” but £6k are utopian in Labour-land. Bizarre, especially as the move from £9k to £6k will make no difference whatsoever to those on modest pay as they won’t end up paying it all off anyway, even on £6k fees a year. Not unless you raise the percentage that comes out of their pay packets anyhow. In other words, this policy will change nothing at all for their core audience.
The only major difference is that the universities will be worse off. Meaning the government will have to put more into them or the quality of the education will suffer.
What I really don’t understand about any of this is the politics of the announcement. Why instead of sneaking this policy very quietly into the Labour manifesto, Miliband is giving a speech on the subject alongside a big press push. Do they really think a very minor tinker with a Con-Lib policy is going to win over the Green waverers and Lib Dems last timers? These people want tuition fees of zero pounds a year. They were abundantly clear about this, if November 2010 is anything to go by. I feel pretty certain that if the Coalition had announced the policy Miliband is announcing today back then, there would have been precisely as much demonstrating against it, by the same group of people. That’s something for Labour leaflets this time round: “Labour’s £6k tuition fee pledge: less riot worthy by a third”.
In conclusion, Miliband has ended up today talking up a slight adaptation of a policy made by a Tory prime minister. Only instead of £9k it’s £6k. Some on the Left describe the Labour Party as Tory-lite. Never has this been more literally the case than today.