After a long and difficult labour, Ed Miliband finally delivered his £6,000 tuition fee pledge – a policy that he says will be a “line in the sand” in any coalition negotiation that may follow the general election.
The lobbying by vice-chancellors in the run-up to last week’s announcement focused on offsetting any cut in fee income with a pound-for-pound increase in public grant.
Miliband’s plan is to find the money by targeting tax relief for the wealthiest pensioners, although it remains to be seen how this splurge would influence future arguments about other areas of higher education funding, including the research budget.
Labour’s political pitch is that it is siding with the disenfranchised youth, for whom debts are compounding the already diminished opportunities in a post-crash world. Critics counter that it looks more like a £2 billion “middle-class giveaway”, given the profile of the likely beneficiaries.
A reduction in fees is undoubtedly eye-catching electoral fare and would demolish the idea that when it comes to tuition fees, the only way is up
In an attempt to mollify the pensioners who would pick up the bill, Miliband observed that “for parents, grandparents…[student] debt feels like such a worry, a burden, a dead-weight”.
If it was the Labour leader who carried the policy to term, then the shadow chancellor Ed Balls was a less than obliging midwife, doing his best to get early termination of an idea he felt Labour could not afford. He was assisted by Lord Mandelson, who was responsible for universities in the last Labour administration, who warned that “any new policy needs to be fully informed by the facts – facts which are always easier to come by in government than in opposition”.
His advice was that whatever the pre-election pledge, Labour should “leave the door slightly ajar”, but Miliband seems to have accepted that after the Liberal Democrat disaster in 2010, a pre-election pledge on fees is either rock solid or a rock on which political parties founder.
It is notable that the long-standing commitment to a graduate tax remains on the shelf, although shadow universities minister Liam Byrne insisted that it was still Labour’s “long-term ambition” at a pre-election debate held by Times Higher Education and partners this week.
With the £6K baby delivered, the policy analysts reported back on the inevitable postnatal problems: the cut was solving a non-existent problem as £9,000 fees had not put off poorer students; the beneficiaries would be middle-class men with successful careers who would pay back their loans a little earlier; and a one-Parliament pledge to make up the shortfall in fee income would leave university budgets back in danger by the time the policy reached the grand old age of five.
The question of the cost is a big one given the £2.7 billion a year price tag, and others claim that if money is available, cash in the pocket may be more useful to students.
The fear that such an outlay would rule out any further discussion about additional funding for research is also valid, and whoever wins the election would do well to remember a point made by Liberal Democrat science spokesman Julian Huppert at this week’s hustings: “investment in research pays back money”. But for all the questions, a reduction in fees is undoubtedly eye-catching electoral fare and would have one undeniable impact: it would change the discussion about university funding and demolish the idea that when it comes to tuition fees, the only way is up.