It’s multiple choice time for ruthless Starmer: will he retain or scrap tuition fees? | Gaby Hinsliff

As the state of education comes under scrutiny, Labour’s leader faces some hard choices over the promises he made in 2020

It’s that time of year when the kids have just gone back to school, and every working parent who just scraped through the Christmas holidays breathes a sigh of relief. But not, perhaps, for long.

Within days we’ll know whether teachers in England and Wales have voted to join university lecturers on strike, an agonising decision for many in the profession: they understand better than anyone the implications of more missed lessons for pupils still struggling to catch up post-pandemic. But teaching unions are already arguing that much as nurses have done in the NHS, they’re attempting to draw attention to a broader crisis brewing in schools, one that is already damaging children’s education.

Teacher vacancies overall are at their highest since 2010, thanks to a combination of post-pandemic burnout, stressful workloads and low morale, as well as pay. More than one in 10 new teachers now quit within a year of qualifying, suggesting some find the reality of classroom life a brutal shock.

Expect to see the political focus shifting accordingly this week from an imploding NHS to education, with Labour flagging up its plans to slap VAT on private school fees and spend the money on state schools. Like Keir Starmer’s pledge to scrap non-dom status and spend the money on training doctors, it’s a symbolic act of redistribution that’s catchy, relatively electorally painless, and guaranteed to embarrass a prime minister who educates his own daughters privately and won’t say whether he uses a private GP. But it’s also the easy bit. The harder argument Starmer must now confront is over tuition fees.

When he ran for party leader in 2020, Starmer made support for scrapping student fees one of his 10 campaign pledges. Asked last week if he stood by it, he audibly hedged his bets: fees obviously weren’t working, he said, and young people were being overburdened with debt, but “the damage that has been done to our economy means that … we will cost everything as we go into that election”. He’s right to reopen this argument, but shouldn’t expect an easy ride.

National Campaign against Fees and Cuts, 2017
‘When he ran for leader in 2020, Starmer made support for scrapping student fees one of his 10 campaign pledges.’ Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

To the delight of some who voted for him and the understandable rage of others, Starmer has already moved a long way from the platform on which he ran for leader less than three years ago. Back in 2020, he promised to make the “moral case for socialism”, and raise income tax for the top 5% of earners. Now he tells this newspaper that taxes are already so high there isn’t a lot of scope for raising them much further, and that Labour won’t be getting out a “big chequebook” in power. Back in 2020, he vowed to support common ownership for rail, mail, energy and water; now, he says he isn’t “ideological” about nationalisation.

Starmer’s defence is that a lot has changed in a few short years; that in 2020 he couldn’t have known what economic scorched earth a future Labour government would inherit following the pandemic, a bungled Brexit and a brief but disastrous experiment with Trussonomics. A cynic might say that having ducked a lot of difficult arguments in 2020, when he wasn’t strong enough to win them, Starmer has chosen to confront them only now from the vantage point of a whopping great lead over the Tories that most Labour supporters are desperate not to jeopardise. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between. But there is a certain ruthlessness to this Labour leader, a willingness to discard positions deemed to have outlived their usefulness.

What’s unusual about the tuition fees policy, however, is that it wasn’t just popular with Labour members wedded in principle to free higher education but with middle-class parents hoping to save a fortune on their children’s education. The first generation forced to fork out £9,000 a year for their degrees, meanwhile, will be in their 30s by the next election – an age at which, unlike twentysomethings, they’re reliably likely to vote – and are palpably furious about the debt they’ve been saddled with. Unlike targeting a handful of elite private schools that the vast majority of children don’t actually attend, a U-turn on tuition fees would be genuinely politically painful.

But the argument for reviewing it remains compelling: if you had upwards of £9bn to spend on education, as a party committed to ending inequalities, would you really spend it scrapping tuition fees? Or would you find other ways to patch up a clearly broken higher education funding model, where fees increasingly don’t cover the costs of teaching anyway, and spend any spare cash on bringing back maintenance grants for those from poorer backgrounds and closing the attainment gap in schools?

It’s unclear yet which way Starmer will jump. But he’s right, at the very least, to be asking the question.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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