Historically tuition fees are one of those policies that the government implements and the opposition opposes, irrespective of which party is playing which role. By this logic, the Westminster Merry-Go-Round dictates that, with the 2015 General Election looming, Labour must now take up the mantle of saviour of the students and win over the famously apathetic ‘Virgin Vote’.
Ed Miliband has thrown his weight behind a policy centred on reducing university fees from £9,000 a year to £6,000, and his advisors are forecasting considerable swings in favour of his party at the election in up to 21 marginal seats. Whether this comes to pass or not depends on what people make of the small print, unfortunately for current University students this is not quite the bargain it seems.
Current or prospective postgraduates will have the largest axe to grind. In the 2015 budget George Osbourne promised loans of up to £10,000 and additional funding for UK students studying for PhDs and research-based master’s degrees. These loans are designed to cover the duration of a postgraduate student’s studies, and will be paid back using the same model current in place for undergraduate loans, but plans may be different under Labour.
There’s not too much joy to be found with undergraduates either. On the face of it, reducing university fees from £9,000 a year to £6,000 would hand a cool £9,000 to every student on a three-year degree course, and the changes could be introduced as early as the start of the 2015/16 academic calendar. In practice it won’t, unless you end up going straight into a profession with a salary so eye-watering it triggers the repayment of the last chunk of the student loan – the bit Labour would be axing. The so-called Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis has recently calculated that only those with a starting salary of £35,000 a year would actually see any benefit.
So while Labour’s policy is seen as heroic raid on the pension pots of the rich elderly, to pay for the struggling young, it is by-and-large a transfer to rich kids who pursue lucrative careers. The real free gift in this policy that is largely escaping media attention is the increase in the maintenance grant for about half of all students, which goes some way to address the anxieties and struggles that come with the cost of living as a student.
Ed Miliband is more plausible when he talks about wanting to fix a “broken” system of university finance, but if the system is truly “broken”, tinkering at the edges won’t help. Ed Miliband could have abolished tuition fees and announced a big cut in student numbers to achieve that; but it would not have generated such useful headlines.
Just as the broken clock is right twice a day, the NUS has hit the nail right on the head with its response to these proposals. Their official statement reaffirmed the union’s stance to be “supportive of any moves away from this failed market” but highlighted that such victories “should serve only to strengthen our resolve to go further, and to win more”.
Most discount offers are too good to be true. Ed Miliband appears to be offering the same education for less, but this policy seems more like a slow descent into mediocrity. Therefore, be encouraged by these proposals but do not be won over by them – this display of political sleight-of-hand is in reality dealing in hundreds of pounds, rather than thousands. The more pressing issues surrounding the current system of university funding and student finance – and although although the Conservative Party may raise fees to £16,000 a year, and Labour may cut to £6,000 – student finance itself ultimately remain untouched by either of the main political parties going into the Election.
Feature image by Edward Frampton.