The establishment press have accused Jeremy Corbyn of trying to take Britain back to the 1970s. To many students, however, whose parents were able to study with a maintenance grant and no tuition fees, this will sound like a shining endorsement!
The Labour manifesto pledge to scrap tuition fees – effectively immediately for all new and current students – and reintroduce maintenance grants is a decisive break from the market-based policies of the past 20 years and gives voters a real alternative to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
Some Corbyn critics, however, have claimed that such a policy is meaningless and that, thanks to student loans, tuition fees offer no barrier to entry for working class students. Instead, they claim that this is simply a giveaway to those more fortunate students who are able to find a job that pays above £21,000, as most students will never be able to repay their loan anyway.
Firstly, the fact that graduates who are able to find paid employment are now considered the lucky ones is illustrative of the depth of the economic crisis we are in and how it has disproportionately affected young people. The argument that attacking tuition fees only helps wealthier students may have held water in 2015, when Ed Miliband proposed to cut them down to £6000 a year, but it is wrong to dismiss the impact that scrapping tuition fees completely will have on the lives of many young people who now graduate with an average of £44,000 of debt. Indeed, if so many students will never be able to repay their loans, why not simply abolish them?
It has already been suggested that if you take into account the loans that will be written off, the price of abolishing fees drops from £11.2 billion to as low as £7.5 billion. It is already becoming clear that one way or another the taxpayer will have to shoulder much of the financial costs of higher education. By scrapping fees, a Labour government would be able to make universities accessible to young people of all backgrounds and create a budget that effectively plans for the next generation of students as well.
Already we’re seeing the negative effects of high tuitions fees, with last year’s university applications being the lowest for the past thirty years. Clearly for many young people the prospect of huge debts alongside falling real wages is too much to bear. On the other hand, abolishing tuition fees and reintroducing the maintenance grant will make higher education possible for many more young people from working-class families than before.
The abolition of tuition fees would also represent a change in attitude towards education. This policy must also be seen as part of a break with the current commodification of education, towards a belief that education is something that benefits the whole of society, to which everyone is entitled. It is not something that must be paid for with a pound of flesh or rationed out to the wealthy. Germany, Scotland and many other countries have vastly reduced or abolished tuition fees; it is clear that this is not some fantasy of youthful naivety.
Students were willing to make a political stand when betrayed by the Liberal Democrats in 2010. Today we must organise and fight for universities that serve the interests of the students and staff, rather than management fat cats and their big business friends. A vote for Corbyn’s Labour and the abolition of tuition fees is the first step towards this.
For an end to tuition fees!
For the right to an education!
For a socialist Labour government!
By Sam Tollitt, UCLU Marxists