- Text by Michael Segalov
This week in Parliament an emergency debate was held on tuition fees. It was called for by Labour, as an attempt to continue a national conversation about our unsustainable system for funding higher education. It’s one that sees students in England burdened with an average of £50,800 of debt (and that’s before the payday loans, overdrafts and IOUs) to access an undergraduate degree.
It comes after an offer from Labour in June’s general election to rethink our increasingly unfair approach to higher education funding. Their promise? To scrap tuition fees. It’s what they said and it’s what they meant.
Since taking office in 2010 the Tories have more than tripled undergrad tuition fees to £9,250 (and rising), and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour manifesto pledged to scrap them completely from 2018, promising to write off the first year of fees for students starting university this September, so that no one is priced out of getting a degree.
For the first time in our lifetimes a party who could soon form a government see the value of education at every level, its leadership intent on making education open and accessible to all.
The Tories, by contrast, want to keep tuition fees and increase them, and when it becomes impossible for the state to keep filling the gap in its finances from unpaid debt they’re desperate to flog the student loan book to a private company for profit to boot. The options are clear: Labour want to scrap tuition fees, the Tories want them higher. It really is as simple as that.
Labour even approached the tricky subject of existing student debt – which according to figures released by the IFS has created a blackhole in the government’s finances. The research found that 77.4 per cent of graduates will never fully repay their debts on the new £9k system, with billions of pounds a year going unpaid by graduates unable to do so.
No promises were made, but Corbyn was upfront and honest. He accepted (as any of us grappling with fee repayments and interest could tell you) that the system right now is failing and unfair, and said he would look into the possibility of making our situation more equitable. No pledge to write off the debt, but a promise to do what he could.
But now the Tories have the audacity to make out that it’s Labour who are trying to screw over students. They’re spreading lies that Corbyn is making a U-turn which is nothing short of fiction. They think young people are too thick to see the reality of what’s happening, once again treating our generation with contempt.
Just take a look at what Corbyn actually said in the interview with NME. This is from the transcript:
“Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing the debt burden.”
“I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage. I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly. We had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem.”
“And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”
The disingenuousness of the Conservatives here is stark, if not surprising – attempts to smear Corbyn as a liar and the enemy of students are coming thick and fast from the Tories, despite the fact the only time they’ve talked about fees since taking government has been to increase them again and again.
This is the same party who’ve slashed away at the Disabled Students Allowance, taken away maintenance grants from students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, scrapped NHS bursaries for trainee nurses while taking away the vital lifeline to college students that was EMA.
The fight against fees has never just been about those currently on courses – when it all kicked off in 2010 it was undergraduates and postgraduates already studying who led the fight for generations to come. Of course, graduates like me are worried about the debt burden, but what we worry about more are students being priced out of education for years to follow.
Labour have pledged to scrap tuition fees and that’s exactly what the party is still offering. The Conservatives are lying, desperate to discredit a leader and claw back support.
If the Tories want to start being trusted by young people again they should try being honest with us: They are the party of tuition fees, Labour are not.