Cutting tuition fees would just benefit wealthy graduates

Published by The Times (19th September, 2017)

The Tories have woken up suddenly to the generational divide. Bribing pensioners and banging on about Europe won just enough votes for them to cling to power in recent general elections. But the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, backed by his fervent young army, exposed their toxicity among those in their twenties, thirties and early forties.

Yet they seem determined to make matters worse. Tuition fees have been a great success since Tony Blair introduced them, funding expansion of higher education and boosting numbers of poorer students even after being near-tripled by the coalition in 2012. Corbyn’s pledge to ditch them was both costly and unprogressive, despite his false claim that they deter working-class people.

Even so he spooked the Tories. Shellshocked by their leader’s stupidity in throwing away her majority, they are casting around in panic for policies to woo younger voters. Like dads dancing at a disco, they have decided the kids need cheaper tuition fees. There is talk the Treasury will cap annual charges at £7,500 instead of the current £9,250.

There is rightful concern over inadequate competition and greedy vice-chancellors stuffing their pockets with gold. But capping fees would only underscore the Tory image as a party for the rich, since the big beneficiaries would be higher-earners able to pay off student debts slightly quicker. This would aid bankers and lawyers, not speech therapists and social workers.

Graduates start paying back the cash only if earning more than £21,000 a year. Bear in mind the average salary in Britain is £27,600. And since outstanding debts are written off after 30 years, lower-earning graduates never pay back the loans in full. A small reduction will make little or no difference to them. Better to raise the income threshold or cut interest rates, which have become too high. Best of all, ministers should reverse their decision to abandon maintenance grants. This increases debts of poorer students while pushing them to take on more outside work to survive, hampering their academic chances.

Yet even this would make minimal difference. For all the fuss, tuition fees are only a marginal concern for most voters. Such is the distrust of politicians, fewer than one in five people actually believed Corbyn would wipe out student debts.

The Tories face a more fundamental problem. They are now the party of Brexit and hard borders, fuelled by nationalism and fear of foreigners. Young people, brought up in a diverse and open society, believe in building bridges rather than walls. It will take far more than a small cut in tuition fees to win them back.

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