Is Her Majesty’s Official Opposition shortly to be led by a man whose policies are (Breton) capped by a pledge to scrap tuition fees and reintroduce student maintenance grants at a cost of £10 billion a year?
With the leadership vote closing at noon today and the result to be announced on Saturday, it’s worth taking a look at what the four candidates have had to say on English higher education and UK research. Significant changes to Labour policies in these areas – and possibly magnetic levitation trains – are in prospect.
Jeremy Corbyn’s policy to scrap fees in England, the first detailed policy he unveiled in the leadership campaign, is seen as one of the key factors that helped him build popularity among the large numbers of young people signing up to vote.
Some would argue that a Corbyn victory would invigorate public debate by challenging the £9,000 fee system and giving political momentum to the idea of directly publicly funded higher education. Others would argue that his fees policy confirms his status as a nailed-on election loser.
Corbyn’s fees policy would draw some flak should he win. The Sun recently ran a piece along the lines of “10 reasons why Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable” (from memory, as I can’t find it online), with his tuition fees policy featuring prominently, on the grounds that it would make those who haven’t been through higher education pay for those who do. Although if we’re applying this logic to public spending, I’ll have a reimbursement of whatever I paid towards London’s outrageous £15 billion Crossrail, which won’t benefit me.
Possibly feeling the heat from Corbyn’s fees policy, Andy Burnham said in his manifesto that he would “establish a new Beveridge-style commission” that would “look at” key changes including “a new graduate tax to support young people into apprenticeships as well as university”. It would be interesting to see how the commission finds a way around the recurring objections to a graduate tax.
Yvette Cooper has also expressed more muted support for a graduate tax during the leadership campaign. Prominent in Cooper’s campaign team is Liam Byrne, Labour’s shadow universities, science and skills minister, another longstanding graduate tax supporter. “I think Yvette is going to win,” said Byrne last week – but I suppose he would have to say that.
Liz Kendall has said that “children’s early years will be my priority as leader, not cutting university tuition fees”, seemingly endorsing the £9,000 status quo.
On science, I imagine it was Byrne who wrote Cooper’s July speech in which she called for “a revolution in science and research” and a 3 per cent GDP target for spending on science and R&D, so the UK can create more high-skilled, high-wage jobs.
Cooper’s team submitted a version of that speech in response to Scientists for Labour, when the group requested a science policy statement from all the leadership candidates earlier this year.
Kendall’s lengthy and enthusiastic response (which feels a little sad now) included a warning that “universities are being hit by the migration cap. Including students in the immigration cap both weakens UK university income and limits the flow of high quality STEM graduates in the UK.”
Burnham said he wanted to boost science and engineering via “a fundamental shift in professional and technical education in this country, so it is a route of equal prestige, and equally supported, as that of university. We must undo the legacy of the Conservative government of the 1980s which dismantled our apprenticeship system, as part of a wider attack on industry.”
Corbyn’s response called for more science investment: “While other countries invest in magnetic levitation train networks, ours remain old and unreliable with expensive fares…and we rank just 10th in Europe for superfast broadband coverage and only 34th globally for download speeds.”
Corbyn continued: “Only a strategic state that supports innovation can close this infrastructure deficit that is holding the UK back, and meaning our science, technology and engineering skills are not being used to their full potential.”
Kendall seems certain to finish fourth, so Labour’s position on fees will change from the Miliband £6,000 fee policy to either a Corbyn “scrap fees” policy or a Cooper/Burnham graduate tax (assuming the victorious candidate implements the policy they advocated in the campaign, of course). Either way, there will be a significant contrast between the Conservatives’ £9,000 policy and Labour’s.
Whether any of these policies help the eventual winner be taken seriously as a leader is another matter.