It was a busy weekend for higher education announcements. First, the Green Party announced a plan to pay off all outstanding student debt on graduates’ behalf. The details were sketchy but there is over £75 billion worth of outstanding debt in England alone. So it is a big policy whichever way you look at it.
The Green Party’s own calculations focus on the annual cost of servicing the debt on graduates’ behalf. They cost the policy at about £14 billion between now and 2022 but claim the long-term cost is ‘more difficult and uncertain to estimate.’
In electoral terms, the danger with such eye-catching announcements is that, while they may appeal to students, they may repel other voters. Non-students may raise questions about a party’s wider economic competence when they choose to spend so much on an area of policy that actually appears to be working rather well. Other voters may also wonder if they will have to pick up the tab.
The second announcement came this morning from the Labour Party. Just a few days ago, they published a manifesto that included the abolition of tuition fees and the reintroduction of maintenance grants. This was their biggest single spending commitment, and is costed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies at £8 billion a year. Now, Labour have apparently offered something even more generous or unaffordable (depending upon your view).
Their latest promise is to abolish fees from this autumn rather than 2018 as originally planned. The Tory Party have been accused of tweaking a manifesto commitment of their own today (on social care), but it is hard to find another similarly-sized spending commitment being made after a manifesto has been published in any past election. For most of the past seven years, the Labour Party has said it needs time to develop a sensible higher education funding policy; now, it has devised a new one in under a week.
The timing is determined by the impending deadline for voter registration. At HEPI, we have consistently called for student voters toregister to vote to ensure their voice is heard: we have analysed how the Individual Electoral Registration system affected students when it was first introduced, and we have worked with a range of people, including Labour MPs, to publicise case studies on how to encourage students to register.
Such initiatives are a part of a wider national campaign to get students to vote. The most notable thing about this, which is relevant to today’s announcement, is that it has been remarkably successful. When the new electoral registration system came in, 99.9% of voters dropped off the register in University ward, Lancaster. A few years on, 93% of all full-time undergraduate students have registered to vote. Most of them plan to vote and most of those who had made up their mind when we polled them in late April said they intended to vote Labour.
So, if today’s commitments are aimed at getting more students to register and then vote Labour, then they are poorly targeted. There are lots of young people who are not registered to vote and who may be there for the taking, but they are not generally the half (or so) of young people who attend higher education. They are already registered and they are already strongly pro-Labour. That is why WonkHEresponded to our recent poll on students’ voting intentions with the claim that it is time to debunk ‘the non-voting student myth’.
Whatever the party politics in play today, it is undeniably true that it is possible to run higher education without undergraduate fees. As explained at length in a 2015 HEPI report, they do it in Germany. Closer to home, it is also the system in place in Scotland. So the problem is not that it is impossible. The problem is that there is a trade off which might make the policy worse than other options.
If you are spending any available resources on free higher education, there is less money for student facilities, student support services, teaching and learning and student places. One or more of these has to give. For example, countries without fees often send fewer people to higher education and spend less educating each person who does go. In the 1980s and 1990s, the UK rejected imposing fees and ended up halving the funding for each student.
In a post-Brexit world with (presumably) fewer skilled migrants, that seems a fairly big and risky step to take.
HEPI will continue to evaluate the party’s higher education policies as they appear – our analysis of the Conservative manifesto is available here.