Editor’s note – In this eloquently written article, our head of articles Lucy Higginbotham analyses Jeremy Corbyn’s policy to scrap tuition fees, one which was central to the Labour campaign during the 2017 General Election. Does the policy really succeed in fulfilling its aims of providing education for the many or just one more perk for the few?

Education for the many or just one more perk for the few?

Leading up to the 2017 general election, Jeremy Corbyn outlined how he planned to reduce inequality in the UK. The Labour manifesto had a chapter dedicated to education, which reflected the party’s endeavour to attract the support of young voters. A policy targeted specifically at young people was his aim to abolish university tuition fees, which did not appear on the manifesto of any other major party.

The Labour party also promised to reintroduce maintenance grants for students, which the Conservatives had previously replaced with loans. Whereas the average student now graduates with debts of over £50,000, under a Labour government many people who otherwise would not be able to afford the living costs associated with attending university would have received financial support from the government.
Corbyn put across a moral argument for free higher education, saying that “no one should be put off educating themselves for lack of money or through fear of debt”. Most people, if not all, would agree that it is wrong for someone to lose out on this opportunity simply due to their socioeconomic status which is entirely out of their control.

However, many young people are already disadvantaged with regards to their education before they reach university age. Someone who can afford to attend a private school, or someone who can afford to live in the catchment area for a grammar school or an above-average state school has a far greater chance of obtaining the grades, skill set and advice that would give them a chance of gaining a place at university. This suggests that someone of a middle-class background would still be more likely to attend university than someone from a working-class background, regardless of the cost. If this is the case, does it mean that, instead of giving everyone a fair chance of going to university, the abolition of tuition fees would in fact only save the money of the middle-class students who were already able and willing to pay? Is this a way of removing the barrier that many people face in progressing to the next level of education, or just an unnecessary bonus for the few at the top?

Even if there was convincing evidence that the abolition of tuition fees would reduce inequality, one must still take into account the immense cost of free higher education for all. In total, Labour’s plans to abolish tuition fees and reintroduce maintenance grants would result in an increased overall cost to the Exchequer of £9.062 billion per cohort. This is obviously a vast sum of money, and, understandably, many would argue that this is not the best way to spend taxpayers’ money. For example, free higher education is unlikely to appeal to older generations who might want their money to go towards improving the NHS, and some young people would rather see more affordable housing for first-time buyers so they can get on the housing ladder. Is it fair to spend public money on something that many members of the public feel they don’t want or need?

One argument is that a more educated population would be beneficial to the country as a whole, not just those who were being educated. But are some degrees better for the public than others? Some might advocate for the sponsorship of only certain degrees that provide essential qualifications that are required for positions that need to be filled in the public sector. However, deciding which courses would be deemed “useful” would cause controversy, and ultimately this would go against the principle of offering equal opportunities for everyone, because it would only benefit the people who wanted to pursue certain careers, and people would still be prevented from studying what they wanted to study by cost.

Corbyn clearly hoped to win the support of younger voters with this promise, as well as showing that Labour were willing to invest in the country’s future. But is it rightfully popular, or simply a populist policy proposed by Labour in an attempt to claw their way up in the polls?

By Lucy Higginbotham
Head of Articles, YouthPolitics UK