On 13 September Labour passed a motion in Parliament protesting at this year’s rise in tuition fees from £9,000 to £9,250 per year.
While the motion was not legally binding, it has been reported in the mainstream press as a dent to the democratic legitimacy of the government’s policy to raise fees in line with inflation.
On 17 September there was seemingly even more substantial news — the government may consider lowering fees to £7,500 from 2018-9! Isn’t the government starting to buckle under the pressure of the young people and students who voted and campaigned in large numbers in support of Labour’s higher education policy? And of a proactive Parliamentary Labour Party prepared to embarrass the government?
Yes, and we could see solid victories in the future. We should be pleased, and we should harness this energy to build a powerful student movement.
But with all the hype, it is possible to gloss over some important points. This new policy is not as bad for the government as it first seems.
Firstly, if fees are eventually linked to ratings in the Teaching Excellence Framework — as is the long term plan — then having some institutions stuck at a lower cap than now fits in well with the ranking system. Rather than hinder the government, it could help hasten the rate at which fee gaps between institutions grow. A widening gap in fees and funding is a key component of the artificial market the government is cultivating.
The Tories want to get the “best of both worlds”, a policy which feeds into their marketisation plan while pacifying enough of the active layer of students and young people who campaigned in the election that the pressure will lift on this issue.
It is vital that we carry on making the argument that fees are a tool for marketisation and that this is the case wherever the government sets its initial fee cap.
The government may also give universities an extra £1,500 per student studying a science course, to make up for the funding loss from lower fees. This will encourage universities to trim arts and humanities departments, already in trouble because of students turning to more job-linked courses.
From September 2017 graduates on more than £40,000 a year must pay 6.1% interest on their loans (up from 4.6%, at a time when mortgage interest rates are sometimes under 4%). That £40,000 thre-shold, and the £21,000 threshold to start repaying (at 3.1% interest) have been frozen, so continually fall in real terms. Those measures are linked to the selling-off of the student loan book, which started in early 2017.
Even if the Tories make it work for them, it looks like they have been forced into a retreat. We need to harness the energy and build a movement that will push us all the way to winning a free, democratically run education service, funded by taxing the rich.