So, we’ve had the Conservative Party Conference, where everyone enjoyed the spectacle of watching various Tory figures manoeuvre themselves towards a potential leadership bid. There’s also been a few big policy announcements, and one is already showing itself to be particularly disastrous.
May declared that the Tories will freeze fees at their current rate of £9,250 per year, in a move that is both a bad policy, and also politically speaking, really silly. We’ll get into both. Firstly, the politics behind this. This is part of a mad dash by many in the Conservatives to try to get themselves to appeal to the youths. Corbyn’s Labour currently enjoys a massive lead in the polls with young people, and to make this a more pressing issue, while Labour is swelling its numbers in terms of a membership, the Tories are, quite literally, dying out. Their average member, according to the Bow Group, is seventy two years of age. That’s not a joke, or a misprint. 72. That is exceptionally old, even for members (rather than voters or supporters) of political parties (simply put, members tend to be older). The Tories, as a result, are pivoting towards trying to pick up that sweet, sweet youth vote – not as an electoral strategy, but as an existential issue that is now facing their party. I’ll deal with this at length in another column.
Back to fees. Freezing fees at £9,250 is possibly one of the worst policy suggestions I have heard in some time. Firstly, you have the actual effect that it’s had – which is simply reminding people that Tories rose tuition fees to that height. A freeze is just absolutely weak stuff compared to Jeremy Corbyn’s offer of no fees at all. Now, I disagree with Corbyn’s policy owing to its massively regressive nature, and the fact it’ll be Adonis-type wonks coming up with a new funding system. But as a young person, I can make this confident prediction: If you’re offered two coffees, one of which is free and the other capped at £3.50, you’re obviously going to choose the free one. The idea that Hammond has been plugging – that young people will actually be incredibly grateful at his super sensible offer – is an absolutely shocking call, which basically ignores the argument made by most young people I know who want free tuition, which is that ‘education should be free to all.’ This position, which I imagine much of my readership will take, is actually one that isn’t massively popular, but it is one that the youth demographic that May is chasing so much to hold.
Plus, as a policy, it is absolutely terrible. Here’s what capping fees actually does. The main complaint about tuition fees is that it can be off-putting for working class students to look at that level of debt. That’s it. No-one can ‘not afford’ tuition fees, because you’re given a Government backed loan to secure them, regardless of your family or personal means. So in terms of improving the optics of fees amongst working class or traditionally underrepresented students, it does absolutely nothing. In terms of improving the optics of the Tory party amongst the young, it’s just a massive red blue flag that has REMEMBER HOW MUCH WE CHARGE YOU FOR FEES COMPARED TO THE ABSOLUTE BOY AND HIS BIG BAG OF CANS daubed in neon paint on it.
There are some nice bits to the idea – for instance the raise in the threshold to pay fees back – up from £21,000 to £25,000. Now that’s a good bit of policy, and the mooted bringing back of the maintenance grant system is some top notch stuff in my opinion – after all, what actually prevents people from going to (or indeed flourishing at) university is never the fees, it’s the prohibitive cost of living around many top grade universities. Most of the Russell Group, after all, exist in built-up metropolitan areas which are pricey as hell to live in, and it’s the cost of living that really screws over working class students – a grant will go some way to ameliorating that issue.
However, when you mix together the new threshold of repayment and a capping of fees, lessening the debt burden by reducing the amount that graduates have to pay back only helps one group – the graduates who will pay back all their loans. And due to capping of what is paid back and when, this group is, on the whole, made up of the highest earning graduates. What this policy actually does, then, is ensure that the wealthiest students pay back less, whereas those who earn less see no tangible benefit, and ensures that working class students who could be put off by the idea of fees remain equally put off. Simply put, the average student won’t actually benefit from this, because the average student does not pay back their fees. Most people won’t get anything at all from the freeze in tuition fees, but those able to pay back their loans (read: the highest earning, wealthiest graduates) will essentially be receiving a tax cut of 9 per cent over £21,000.
In other words, this is:
Even more socially regressive than Labour’s already regressive offer
Completely terrible at doing what it is meant to do
A terrible-looking policy that has backfired in terms of PR
Just… so bad.