Are Labour’s plans to cut annual tuition fees to £6000 really that great?

Originally published by Joe Jenner on his blog

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Labour have hoped to regain some of its traditional support from students with its new flagship policy aimed at reducing fees. Ed Miliband confirmed that Labour would reduce tuition fees from £9000 to £6000 a year, if the May election brings them into power. The resultant reduction in university funding would be filled by what some people are calling a “tax raid” on high earner’s pension pots. But as the Tories do everything in their power to alienate young voters, Labour’s pledge to reduce fees seems quite appealing – or so it would seem.

Labour’s new plan has been criticised by many on the Right as an “attack” on pensioners. But those effected by the policy would more likely be those earning more than £150,000 a year. But closer to home, it’s been warned that this plan will make it harder for our increasingly commercialised universities to balance the books, and lead to increases in tuition fees for already grossly over-charged international students. However, views have certainly been mixed: The Institute for Fiscal Studies claims that in the short and long-term this policy would help to reduce government debt, and have little impact on university finances.

But those heralding Labour’s new plans as ground-breaking, or dare we say progressive, fail to see this policy for what it is – a concession.  Although Labour plan to reduce annual tuition fees by £3000, ultimately they are still maintaining their pledge to tuition fees. Juggling between angry debt-burdened students and the neoliberal political consensus means that the struggle for a free, and accessible, education system is less likely to mobilise into mainstream politics. By reducing the fees slightly instead of campaigning for their abolition, the whole concept of paying for education is legitimised.

Since 2010 we have seen Labour pragmatically jump between “free education” and the current neoliberal and austerity consensus, with a bit of mandatory Clegg-bashing here and there. But with the news that they want to reduce fees, and in the long-term replace them with a “Grad Tax”, isn’t the whole struggle against tuition fees over?

The answer: no. A tax on graduates includes the same fundamental principle as tuition fees: that education is not a right, but a privilege. As a result, the belief that education is only for those who can afford it, will become part of the neoliberal, “common sense” political wallpaper. Labour won’t be the party for young people until it recognises that education should be free and accessible to all. Reaching out to students with its “fair” deal will not win all of them back. But neither will it result in an abolition of fees, but instead legitimise education as an individual privilege.

The proposal for a reduction in fees  is therefore not a key turning point, but a pragmatic decision mustered together to retain student support. Therefore, instead, we should be asking: how do we continue to campaign for a free and just education system now that having to pay for education has become a greater political norm?

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