On Tuition Fees, Theresa May is Charging into a Doomed Battle

Jeremy Corbyn to the left of her, John McDonnell to the far left of her, boldly rode into the Valley of Death Theresa May.

Perhaps not since the famously immortalised Charge of the Light Brigade has a leader gone so willingly into a fight in which the option lose is the most optimistic of scenarios.

If we constructed an elaborate analogy where tuition policy was a paper bag and the prime minister were inside that bag fighting to get out, the money would be on the bag to win.

So, is the Maybot once again malfunctioning? Yes and no.  

Observers are still working out what happened at the last general election but everyone agrees that something happened. Whether it was a case that Labour’s pledge led to a full-throttled charge to the polling booths by young voters or was just enough to entice them to listen to the party, something happened but no one knows what.

We do know that the two parties' voting demographics by age look like mirror images of one another: young voters opt for Labour in similar numbers to older voters plumping for the Tories. The difference is that Labour's demographic are still coming on the market.

The idea is that by tackling the perceived injustice of tuition fees, the Tories will be taking one weapon away from Labour’s armoury.

It is not a ridiculous notion but shows how great the loss of confidence has been among the Conservatives that they have retreated on the issue. When fees were introduced, people (ahem, me included) predicted that such high rates would put off working-class students from applying for university.

That has not happened. The proportion of students from the least privileged backgrounds continued to increase even after the Coalition’s fees hike.

That does not mean fees are right. It does mean that there is an argument to be had. A confident party would return fire and say that by asking richer graduates to pay back they are able to fund initiatives that help all students. For the many, not the few - as the old saying goes.    

Labour pledge has a cost. At £11bn it is not cheap. A government that is in theory against the existence of magic money trees - and who recently trebled fees in the name of fiscal responsibility - cannot easily match Labour’s promise.

Even within Labour, the pledge was controversial, with some such as Angela Raynor preferring to spend the money on early learning rather than a middle-class subsidy. Inequality takes root early. It is in Scotland where fees were abolished that the poorest are least likely to go to university.  However, whether intentional or not, the promise created a bind for their opponents.

So Theresa May is left saying that the system isn’t broke but it is, and that she isn’t going it do as much as Labour about it.

Being reactive is never a good Look in politics

The option trailed by the press has been to “slash fees” by dismantling requirements on widening participation. Despite the headline figure it is a policy that would benefit the highest-earning graduates to the detriment of the least well-off. May would be choosing - for the sake of a headline - the worst of all worlds. Bad politics and bad policy.

Forcing universities to reduce some fees - effectively making fees variable - forgets the fact that they are already variable. Under the present arrangement, high-earning graduates pay back more than those who go into lower-paid jobs. Forcing down fees merely means that cash-strapped universities become more so.

Governments effectively subsidise more expensive courses such as medicine because those graduates do not necessarily go into higher-paying jobs. An English degree might be cheaper but those graduates tend to be higher paid over the long term. Headline variable fees potentially penalises lower salaried graduates.

There is a whiff is posturing here: being seen to do something rather than actually doing it. The end result could be something worse than the present system.  

Being reactive is never a good look in politics. The talent is turning a crouch position into an attack. Had May instead announced a Royal Commission into the future funding and structure of the NHS, she would have turned fire on Corbyn.

He would have to answer whether Labour would support that commission, choosing between politics and policy. Moreover, any reform of structures - however bipartisan - would be more controversial for Labour than the Tories.  

Meanwhile, whatever May decides at the end of her review she will probably receive little credit. Even the best case scenario of restoring the maintenance grant would still not match Labour’s pledge.

It would be a focussed acknowledgement that fees are only a proportion of any student’s debt. It would also cost money though.

Tories don’t believe in the magic money tree and they certainly do not believe that that magic money trees grow in magic money forests. Any money spent tackling student debt is money lost for the NHS, early learning or housing.

So, in fact, it is not just a case of a doomed fight. It is that potentially the Tories are losing the next battle too.

What’s more, no one is going to write poetry about it.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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