Labour have announced plans to cut tuition fees from £9,000 a year to £6,000, the funding for this coming from reducing tax relief for the highest earners. Ed Miliband has stated that this is an issue which will not be compromised on in the event of forming a coalition government. Although this is a policy which on the surface seems very attractive to young voters, there are few real benefits for current students.
The financing of higher education needs overhauling. It is estimated that under the current system, around half of tuition fees will never be repaid, with Ed Milliband claiming that ‘by the late 2040s student debt write-offs will be hitting £21bn a year’. The system is not only crippling for students, but it does not make sense for the taxpayer either. This reform may not increase the amount of tuition fees being paid back; the real benefit would be the huge reduction in government debt, which an analysis by the Institute of Fiscal Studies has said would not make a huge difference to universities’ finances, at least in the short run.
It is certainly an appealing policy, but this alone should not be enough to attract the student and first time voter demographic towards Labour. What the reform has completely failed to appreciate is that for many students and their families, the real financial difficulty with higher education is living costs, which have to be paid up front. We, as students, are only directly confronted with the effect of tuition fees,when they start affecting our wage slips, yet the cost of books, food and going out takes serious toll on our overdrafts. These debts have to be paid off immediately, as after graduating we no longer have the luxury of interest free overdrafts, which causes massive problems for the large number of students who do not find immediate employment. This means we begin our adult lives with escalating debts.
Labour’s response to this criticism has been to promise a £400 increase in non-repayable grants for the poorest students, but this also misses the point. Arguably, the families who struggle most with financing university are the squeezed middle, who earn just enough to stop qualifying for financial help above the base rate. The number of university applicants has not been affected by the increase in tuition fees, but insufficient maintenance loans are becoming a real strain on families; many struggle to provide enough of their disposable income for their children with.
Most first time voters will be students already, thus although it makes good headlines, this policy is unlikely to attract a large portion of the new voters on whom it will have little effect. The real appeal will be for voters who would benefit as both taxpayers and parents of future students. This is a positive step for Labour towards strong policies on issues close to the public’s heart. However, as students we should not be content to vote for them on this issue alone.
The cut in tuition fees may have a beneficial long term effect for the economy, but reveals Labour’s complete misunderstanding of the real problems facing the majority of students. The promised cuts will attract a particular strand of voters, but it will not be the students who were so betrayed by the last set of promises about tuition fees. To engage young and first time voters, Labour need to do much more to convince us that they have our interests at heart.