Ed Miliband is wrong. Tuition fees gave poorer students hope | Peter Wilby

Extra funds meant more university places. The real issue now is cuts to education maintenance grants

Ed Miliband will on Thursday lead Labour MPs into the Commons division lobbies against proposals to treble student fees. "No party with a deep and genuine commitment to social mobility could support them," he argued in the Observer this week. He is wrong, and worse, he is missing an opportunity to lead a broader protest – now increasingly evident through street marches and occupations of shops, offices and university buildings – against attempts to saddle the poor with the costs of bailing out bankers, and against cuts that, unlike tuition fees, will directly reduce the little social mobility we have.

Labour has been seduced into sentimental, sloppy thinking that defends the interests of the affluent, not the poor. Yet it was Labour that originally had the political courage and clarity to sort out higher education funding and produce a solution that got thousands more disadvantaged children to university.

Far from excluding those from poor homes, the introduction of student fees has been associated with a sharp increase in their participation. This is because universities have been able to admit more students without the cost to the exchequer being prohibitive. In the late 1990s, before fees, universities – like grammar schools of old – were vehicles for passing middle class privilege down the generations. The 11-plus was transmuted into an 18-plus. The post-1960s expansion of higher education benefited the less intellectually gifted middle class children and, more laudably, middle class girls. During those years the chances of a middle class child getting to university rose faster than those of a working class child. The gap between the social classes increased.

In 2009, however, young people from disadvantaged neighbourhoods were 50% more likely to get university places than they had been 15 years earlier, while those from advantaged areas were only 15% more likely. At last university expansion was benefiting the poor, giving them a smidgen of hope that they could climb the social ladder.

I repeat: a smidgen of hope. The class gap in participation rates remains wide. In poor areas, fewer than one in five go to university, against more than half in affluent areas. Equally important, entry to elite universities – those that all but guarantee entry to sought-after careers – still carries the heaviest social bias.

But progress is undeniable. Once they look coolly at the economics, 18-year-olds make better judgments than their hysterical, ill-informed elders. To describe students as facing a lifelong "burden" of "crippling" debt is simply bizarre, particularly for a Labour leader who wants to replace the debt with a graduate tax that the rich would avoid as smartly as they avoid all other taxes.

Under the coalition's plans, graduates will make repayments amounting to 9% of any earnings above £21,000 a year (inflation adjusted); those on £30,000, well above the median national wage, will pay just £68 a month. If earnings are never high enough to pay off the loan, it is written off after 30 years. The debts are often compared to mortgages, but no bank offers mortgages on those terms. Moreover, almost every student from a family where income is below the median wage will get an annual, non-repayable maintenance grant of £3,250. As the Browne report on student finance put it: "The student from a wealthy household who goes on to become a high-earning graduate will no longer benefit from any public subsidy." Why should a Labour leader oppose that?

And why should a Labour leader think we have "a collective responsibility for higher education"? On what grounds? The contribution of higher education to national economic wealth is contested but, even if it is accepted, indiscriminate subsidies make no more sense than subsidies to wealth-creating private corporations. Higher education is a private good, which government provides as it provides libraries. But libraries are open to all; other services, such as free school meals, are distributed according to need. No other service is distributed according to "merit", requiring low-income taxpayers to finance something to which they and their children are denied access.

Most bizarre of all is the argument that, because graduates of earlier generations benefited from free university education, they should not deny it to others. Should those who went to grammar school never argue for comprehensives, and those who inherited wealth never support higher estate duties? Should those who benefited from slavery not have supported abolition?

The truth is, without higher student fees, university expansion would be halted and even go into reverse. Under any debt reduction strategy (and Labour, remember, planned one too), government funding must be cut to some extent. Unless another source of revenue is found for universities many young people will miss out, and it won't be those from middle class homes.

Miliband should focus on the proposal to cut education maintenance grants, which rightly exercises young protesters more than fees. Introduced by Labour and targeted at poorer families, the grants played a vital role in getting more disadvantaged young people to university. It was at 16, not 18, that working-class dropping out from education always occurred. University fees do not deter, but a funding gap during A-level study does. At 16 children from poor neighbourhoods are tempted to follow the peer group, taking a dead-end job or drawing benefits. Once they join an aspirant sixth-form peer group, disadvantaged young people are almost as likely as others to reach university.

The withdrawal of allowances is all of a piece with the coalition's wider policies: cuts in housing allowances and other benefits; cuts in Sure Start and other services; and the abandonment of Labour's child poverty reduction targets. These should be the focus of concerns about social mobility. The effects of poverty on school achievement are so powerful that any disadvantaged child who even contemplates university has achieved a small miracle. He or she is hardly likely to be put off by the prospect of a loan on such easy terms – to many of these children £21,000 a year will seem riches beyond their dreams.

Thursday's fees debate will be the first test not only of Miliband's leadership but also of Liberal Democrat MPs and their willingness to defy their party leadership. For both it is the wrong issue, betraying their sad confusion between the interests of the middle classes – whose children will still get university places if the higher fees proposal is ditched – and the interests of the poorer families they claim to protect.


Peter Wilby

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ed Miliband condemns rise in university tuition fees - video

Labour leader Ed Miliband says the coalition's policy on fees could result in university places being cut

19, Apr, 2011 @1:50 PM

Article image
Politics Weekly: Tuition fees and the Liberal Democrats

The government won a tight vote on raising university tuition fees as a split Lib Dem party was forced to backtrack on a key election pledge. Our expert panel discusses the political fallout

Presented by Allegra Stratton and Tom Clark and produced by Phil Maynard

10, Dec, 2010 @3:37 PM

Article image
Nick Clegg fights to quell tuition fees rebellion

Deputy PM asks Liberal Democrat MPs to support near tripling of university tuition fees despite pre-election pledge

Allegra Stratton, political correspondent

03, Nov, 2010 @6:06 AM

Article image
Labour would cut top university fees to £6,000, says Ed Miliband

Banks will lose tax cuts to pay for lower student costs, while higher-earning graduates will pay more interest on loans

Toby Helm, Andrew Rawnsley and Daniel Boffey

24, Sep, 2011 @7:00 PM

Article image
Labour would cut top level of university tuition fees to £6,000
Ed Miliband pledges to lower fees from £9,000 by curtailing pension tax reliefs if Labour is elected, arguing current system of student finance is broken

Patrick Wintour, political editor

27, Feb, 2015 @12:01 AM

Article image
Higher education shouldn't be a market. No wonder tuition fees are failing | Hugh Muir

Hugh Muir: First thoughts: All that pain, all that argument, to bring in the £9,000 fees cap – now it's close to costing us more than it's made. So why bother?

Hugh Muir

21, Mar, 2014 @10:33 AM

Article image
Tuition fees confusion will deter students | Wes Streeting
Wes Streeting: Poor publicity about the new arrangements presents a real risk that students will be put off applying for wholly avoidable reasons

Wes Streeting

19, Apr, 2011 @4:16 PM

A graduate tax ain't going to happen. But Ed Miliband can make tuition fees fairer | Jackie Ashley
Jackie Ashley: I see why Ed Miliband opposes a fee increase. But if he's clever and changes tack, he could achieve a crucial victory

Jackie Ashley

11, Oct, 2010 @7:00 AM

Article image
Tuition fees rise has not put off applications by disadvantaged students
Independent Commission on Fees study reveals an applications increase from poorer neighbourhoods between 2010 and 2013

Richard Adams, education editor

11, Sep, 2013 @6:33 PM

Article image
Tuition fees should be scrapped, says 'architect' of fees Andrew Adonis
Student finance system leaves graduates in England with debt of £50,000 or more and three-quarters will never pay it back, says former Blair adviser

Richard Adams and Sonia Sodha

07, Jul, 2017 @5:33 PM