Scrapping tuition fees will cost billions – the poor need that money more than graduates

The tuition fees system could be progressive. Scrapping it will take money away from where it's needed.

10 May 2017: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn attends a campaign rally at Garforth Leisure Centre, West YorkshireDan Kitwood/Getty Images

There are few more obvious signs of middle class capture of the Labour Party than the obsession with university tuition fees.

This may sound harsh – it is after all possible to be middle class and care about things other than one's own self-interest - but it is difficult to interpret the party's willingness to spend exorbitant sums of money on what amounts to a middle-class subsidy as anything else.

To not put too fine a point on it, most people who go to university are middle class, and it is the young and middle class who increasingly represent Labour's core vote. Working class support for Labour has been ebbing away for years, and Corbynism is probably more a symptom than a cause of that.

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But the desire to subsidise affluent graduates at a time of austerity does give a sense that the party does not really have its ear to the ground when it comes to those on low incomes.

My intention here is not to come across as prolier-than-thou, but rather to try and explain why Labour would allocate the huge annual sum of £9.5bn to scrap university tuition fees if it wins next month's general election when so many other areas of government are crying out for cash.

Homelessness has increased by 26% in the past four years. The NHS and social care are facing a funding crisis. Then there are the cuts to social security which so many supporters of Jeremy Corbyn banked on him reversing. Would all of these things not be better targets for £9.5bn than middle class graduates?

I say this because, rather than higher education being something that is 'reserved for the rich', as the protesters against tuition fees hollered in Parliament Square back in 2010 (myself included), a record number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds in England and Wales are today going to university and college.

In contrast, Scottish universities (which have abolished tuition fees) are the worst in the United Kingdom for admitting poorer students. Those of us who protested against the imposition of fees back in 2010 should have the good grace to admit that our worst fears – of a precipitous drop in admissions from working class students – did not come to pass.

The main problem with university tuition fees as things stand is not that they are repelling poor students, but that the threshold at which former students must start repaying their loans – at £21,000 - is set too low.

But in principle tuition fees work like a progressive graduate tax. Only the highest 55% of graduates are expected to ever repay the current £9,000 a year fees. Thus if you leave university and go on to land a well-paying job as a lawyer you will be charged a higher rate of interest on your earnings. In contrast, if you leave university and end up working in a call centre on a low wage you won't pay anything back and your fees will be written off after 30 years.

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The system isn't perfect by any means. As mentioned already, £21,000 is not a very large wage on which to start repaying a loan back and the threshold should probably be raised. Under the current system, very low earners and very high earners do quite nicely, in that the former are exempt from having to pay anything back and the latter can pay everything back in one lump sum, avoiding costly interest. Those sandwiched in-between end up paying more than both the very poorest and the most affluent while not necessarily earning a great deal.

But with a few tweaks, the system could be progressive. When people earn more upon graduating they are asked to dig a little deeper to pay for those who don't. Working class children can afford fees because they do not have to pay much of the money back until they are earning a middle-class wage.

Student hardship is typically a consequence of the poor provision of maintenance grants and bursaries rather than tuition fees per se. More reason, then, to direct the money to these areas rather than obsess about reducing the amount that lawyers and investment bankers must pay for their degrees.

The extent to which we are dealing with abstractions in Labour's proposals to abolish fees – a lionisation of an ideal of the working class rather than an interest in outcomes for working class people - is encapsulated in the oft-heard rhetoric about 'universal free education'. It is a misnomer of course, for education – together with every other service the government provides – is never free. Someone always has to pay for it.

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Politics is about deciding who. Should it be people like myself, who enjoyed three years of drinking, socialising and study – possibly in that order - and who, as a consequence, will go on to earn as much as £100,000 more over a lifetime than non-graduates?

Or should the burden fall on others like my two siblings, who spent those years after school working in relatively low paid employment and who, as taxpayers, will be expected to pick up the nine billion pound tab for the abolition of tuition fees?

For the Labour Party, the answer should be obvious.

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