One of the most eye-catching policies in the Labour Party manifesto is the pledge to abolish tuition fees for English students. Although full details of how they would implement this policy aren’t provided, if you take it at face value then it would amount to the single most radical shift in higher education policy in decades, bringing a bulldozer to the whole architecture of fees, loans and income-contingent repayments which has gradually evolved since the early 1990s. But is this really a viable option? And how might it affect Labour’s appeal among the student vote?
Shift in policy
Since the advent of “New” Labour shifted the party towards the centre ground roughly 30 years ago, critics have frequently argued that it was hard to spot the ideological differences between the two monolithic parties which dominate British politics. Labour’s 2017 manifesto means that this criticism can longer be substantiated, to put it mildly: across a wide range of crucial policy areas Labour and the Conservatives are now further apart in their thinking than they have been at any point since the 1980s.
Tuition fees are one of the most prominent examples: it appears that Labour has now committed itself to making a return to a system of direct central government grants to fund universities, abolishing tuition fees and rolling back the “marketisation” of higher education, while the Conservatives remain committed to introducing its new “Teaching Excellence Framework” (TEF), which will see fees at institutions that offer high-quality teaching increase in line with inflation over the coming years.
Although IF is a non-party-political organisation, we have recently published research on the economic inefficiency of tuition fees which argued that the state should fund higher education directly because – given that the average graduate is more likely to be employed, will pay more in taxes over a lifetime and enjoy better health than the typical non-graduate – the public sector makes a positive return on its investment from doing so overall. Therefore, we are broadly supportive of Labour’s policy, although with the caveat that many of the details are yet to be specified (for example, it isn’t clear whether the policy would only apply to new or current students, or whether all the outstanding student debt would be written off as well).
The earlier leak of the Labour manifesto happened to coincide with the publication of a new report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) into students’ voting intentions. Based on polling data that were gathered from a representative sample of 1,000 current full-time undergraduate students, the data showed that Labour enjoy a massive lead over all the other parties among this particular demographic: fully 55% of students who said they intended to vote plan to do so for Labour, with only 18% of this group leaning towards the Conservatives and just 12% for the Liberal Democrats.
Given that there are over 1 million eligible voters in the UK who are students, they could potentially have a significant impact on the election, although younger voters in general are usually less likely to turn out than older ones (yet over half of those polled said they were registered and expected to vote, so this trend may be reversing). Their impact could also be blunted somewhat by the fact that the majority said they expected to cast their votes in their home constituencies (one of the consequences of holding an election outside university term-time), so the impact of large geographical concentrations of students in particular seats may not be what it was at previous votes (which have usually been held while students were at their term-time addresses).
Interestingly, the data also showed that the most important issues for student voters are the EU and the NHS, while personal indebtedness came out near the bottom; so, paradoxically, the parties’ education policies may not have much impact on the number of students who choose to vote for them.
One thing is for sure: young voters can’t say they weren’t offered a real choice at this year’s election, however they decide to respond to it.
Photo by Faustin Tuyambaze: https://unsplash.com/@tfaustin