This week Labour’s announcement to back tuition fees at £6,000 has dominated the higher education agenda. But it’s drawn both praise and criticism, and so I’ve taken the decision to award it both a first and a fail, and look at its strength and weaknesses.
Heading for a first … Labour’s tuition fee policy
The removal of price variability, greater stability for university finances, the scrapping of the potentially destabilising core and margin model, and a significant reduction in student debt on graduation. Major steps forward that most accept would mute the market excesses of the coalition’s higher education reforms.
In announcing an interim position, which Labour has put forward as an alternative which could and in their eyes should be implemented immediately by the coalition, it proves that higher education continues to retain a high profile on the political agenda. It also appears to have resonated well with lots of prospective students and their parents who recognise that Labour has tried to reconcile the tension between ensuring universities remain to be sufficiently well funded, while continuing to bring in a student contribution.
Many universities too have welcomed the announcement, particularly those concerned about how the ill-thought out core and margin model will work. This appears to threaten to solidify social inequality by further concentrating students from selective schools into universities who will be spending more money on their students, while the rest will be forced into a bargain basement race to the bottom as universities are forced to charge fees lower than £7,500, implemented as a result of Treasury miscalculations on what the average fee would be.
Heading for a fail … Labour’s tuition fee policy
But for all the praise that Labour’s announcement brought, there was a fair amount of dismay and dissatisfaction too. Chief among the concerns came from supporters of a graduate tax, feeling that the £6,000 announcement was an attempt to backtrack from Ed Miliband’s support for the alternative to tuition fees which had been central to his leadership campaign.
While most accept that the transfer to a graduate tax isn’t feasible overnight, crucial technical issues like ensuring that hypothecation will work and clarity on the funding method for universities to still receive upfront money would need to be resolved, it was the lack of clarity over whether the announcement was simply a suggestion for what the coalition could do now, or whether it might indeed find its way into the 2015 Labour manifesto that caused concern.
For others, the decision to back £6,000 appeared to concede that tuition fees are here to stay. There are still a sizeable number of critics of the tuition fees system no matter what form it takes, and with any cap it might have. For them, putting forward a policy that is far from ideal with its only redeeming feature being that it’s not quite as bad as what the coalition has put forward doesn’t cut the mustard, even as a short term fix.
But whatever your position on tuition fees or a graduate tax, the debate has certainly been reignited. As the Labour party conference comes to a close, it now appears clearer that the £6,000 suggestion is simply a short-term position to demonstrate the coalition could do something different right now. As for what might appear in the 2015 manifesto, I suspect we’ll have to wait until the policy review is finally published.