Last week, Ed Miliband announced that his government would cut tuition fees from £9000 to £6000. This is a move born out of political opportunism rather than a genuine desire to help students. It is reflective of a wider misunderstanding of the tuition debate that fails to take the real interests of students into account.
Discussion around tuition fees has had the wrong focus. It needs to shift away from total fees, and towards living support, the maintenance loan, and the process of paying it back. The number one cause of students dropping out of university is financial hardship. It is not an inability to pay back debt after graduation, but an inability to pay rent and living costs during their studies. This is when students are most in need of financial assistance. After all, we cannot work full-time and, if we do work, we are entitled to a lesser minimum wage.
Moreover, there is no evidence that the increase in fees has led to less students attending University. Rather, university applications are at a record high, and applications from people from disadvantaged backgrounds have soared. Evidently tuition costs are not the main cause for concern.These fees not being paid up front means that they’re not really the problem. We only pay them back once we’re in a position to do so. And the threshold at which loans are paid back is now at £21,000 instead of £15,000, meaning it really is the case that the money is paid by those who can afford it. That is the hallmark of a progressive tax system.
The suggestion from Labour is that cutting tuition by a third will reach out to the many disengaged young people across the country. While it is true that the young are neglected in political discourse, this shallow attempt to win over younger voters represents this very neglect. It shows an unwillingness to engage with the real issues facing students, a lack of understanding around student affairs, and a patronising ‘carrot-and-stick’ mentality when it comes to policy.
Do they really believe that this is enough to persuade students to tick their box?