I can remember when the Labour government introduced tuition fees making the announcement just before the end of the summer term in 1997 to be applied to students taking A Levels and going to university in 1998. The students finished their first year thinking that their fees would be paid at university and began their second year knowing that this was no longer the case. Did it put people off from applying to university that year? Well, two people who I would have expected to apply decided not to. Did it affect which university they applied to? Again slightly, with two or three students applying to universities nearer home so they could reduce their living costs and keep part-time work. For these students, there was to be no student debt at the end of three years…they earned sufficient to cover tuition and other costs.
If the average student debt today is £44,000 then the issue is not living costs as universities seem to be arguing but tuition fees: £27,000 fees and £17,000 living costs. It suits universities to divert attention away from tuition fees. Many students who I’ve spoken to about this suggest that their courses did not provide value for money. For instance, a History student who has a seminar a fortnight and two lectures a week in the second and third year of her course is not getting value for money…and that was at one the Russell Group universities. In that respect, Ed Miliband’s proposal to reduce fees from £9,000 to £6,000 makes some sense. The response has, however, been predictable: universities are concerned that their loss of revenue will impact of what they can deliver while the Students’ Union is all in favour of the proposal. To argue as Mr Miliband is expected to say that ‘the government has designed a system which is burdening students with debt today and set to weight down the taxpayer with more debt tomorrow.’, implying that it’s all the Conservatives’ fault takes a little swallowing. Was it not Labour that introduced tuition fees in the first place? Student debt was an implicit feature of tuition fees from the outset…the question is what is an acceptable level of student debt? So too was writing off that debt after thirty years.
What is being suggested is a blatant piece of electioneering. If you vote Labour in the election then you’ll pay £9,000 less for tuition fees over three years…it’s a good ploy but will it work? Labour's private polling suggests that tuition fees isn't just an important issue for young people, but that older voters too dislike the idea of the next generation apparently being saddled with debts. Now I’m not really cynical about polling—oh yes I am—I can see the question ‘do you like/dislike the idea of the next generation being saddled with debt?’ No self-respective individual is going to say that she ‘likes the generational debt. It rather like the now almost forgotten promise to cap fuel bills…it’s all smoke and mirrors. Today’s headline is tomorrow’s forgotten promise.