In light of the Labour Party’s shock survival at the General Election last June, Jeremy Corbyn’s flagship policy of abolishing tuition fees looks set to dominate the debate over education for years to come. But beyond giving a few people the right to yell empty slogans about ‘free education’, the argument for this holy grail of left wing politics is a pretty thin one.
Introducing fees, and then raising them to their current level, has done virtually nothing to deter people from all socioeconomic backgrounds from going to university. Our student loan system means university is paid for as a modest percentage of earnings over a certain threshold after graduation. It’s a system that works. Statistics show that more working class people than ever before are going to university. The one part of the UK where university is free – Scotland – actually does the worst at this. Could it be that the vast expense of subsidising tuition is acting as a drain on money and resources that are needed elsewhere?
Imagine taking a load of money from a working class family where no one has ever gone to university, and handing it to a well-off graduate. That’s the literal reality of what abolishing tuition fees would mean. It’s a direct transfer of wealth from the poor to the middle class and the rich. This is money that could be spent on the NHS, social care, outreach programs to encourage poorer kids to apply for university… As regressive a policy as you can get, yet oddly enough advocated by all manner of people claiming to be progressives.
But enough about what British students don’t need. Here are a few suggestions of what they do need.
Britain’s students aren’t losing that much sleep over their invisible student loan debt. Okay, admittedly, that 6% interest rate is ludicrously high, though mercifully that appears to be under review. But what they’re really losing sleep over is, well, the place they’re sleeping – specifically, how to pay for it. Especially in a city like Brighton.
The obvious solution to spiralling rents across the UK is summed up in that age old saying ‘build more sodding houses’, but since promising new houses is like promising unicorns, there’s a few things that can be done in the meantime to help students who are left at the mercy of the housing market. Banning the legalised extortion that is agency fees would be a good start (whenever you’re ready Theresa, it was in your manifesto). Before I moved to Brighton I thought shelling out £75 per person for my letting agent to print out 12 A4 pages was expensive (those were the days). You can imagine my horror trying to find accommodation here and being quoted figures as high as £360 (!). Expenses like that can be financially crippling for less well-off students. More effective regulation to deal with some of the cowboy landlords and letting agents out there wouldn’t go amiss too. We shouldn’t have to wait 3 month for our collapsed sofa to be replaced, or 12 months for the lock on the front door to be fixed (wait no they never fixed that).
Maintenance loans are also a mess. A system that gives one size loan for London and another for every single other place in the country together is so mind-numbingly stupid it could only have been designed by someone who’d never ventured past the M25. Students in places like Brighton, where rents are comparable to London, are particularly disadvantaged by this system. Change it so that the size of the loan reflects average student living costs in whatever part of the country you are in. You could go further and abolish the means-testing of it too. Means-testing based on your parents’ income ignores all manner of factors such as other siblings at university, your parents’ financial commitments and debts, their generosity – all of which may impact their ability to support you (if at all). It’s also extraordinarily easy to game the system if your parents are divorced. Replace it with a flat-rate for everyone (adjusted by location only), and set it significantly higher than the current minimum (which is too low to even cover rent in many places). A system like this would be fairer to students from all economic backgrounds. Give students the choice, and those who feel they don’t need it all can always choose to take less of it.
None of these solutions would require major additional spending by the government. If you want to put more money into education, you could spend relatively modest sums investing in university facilities, or improving schools to give more children the opportunity to attend the best universities. But don’t waste £10 billion a year on a middle class handout that won’t help students or universities.