In the past 15 years, the Labour Party has backed the tripling of undergraduate fees in England (at the 2005 election), supported a big cut in fees (at the 2015 election) and is now backing the abolition of fees (from the 2017 election onwards). Meanwhile, the Conservative Party has shifted from opposing fees (at the 2005 election), to tripling them in office and now, apparently, wanting to see them fall.
Take the 2015 general election, less than four years ago. Then, Labour strongly supported a reduction in tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 while the Conservatives strongly opposed the idea. Now, the Conservative Prime Minister is thought to favour a similar policy to Labour’s back then, while Labour are opposing all fees.
This puts Theresa May and Ed Miliband on the same side of the fence, while Michael Howard and Jeremy Corbyn are on the other. Confused? You should be. (And I have not even mentioned the Lib Dems, who have moved from opposing fees out of office, backing high fees in office and, if media speculation is right, wanting a graduate tax now they are out of office again. Nor have I mentioned other parts of the UK, even though in Wales the Lib Dems and Labour have recently presided over the introduction of £9,000 fees.)
There are two contrasting things going on.
First, when a party looks a long way from power, they tend to find they oppose higher student fees but, when a party is in or close to office, they discover they support higher fees.
Secondly, and counter-intuitively given the first point, parties that have opposed high fees in the hope of winning votes have tended to lose and parties supportive of high fees have tended to do better.
- In 2004, Labour legislated to triple fees and won in 2005.
- In 2012, the Coalition introduced £9,000 fees and the Conservatives won in 2015.
- In 2017, the Conservatives still supported high fees and won (though without a majority).
This is all highly topical because of some new comments on fees from shadow ministers. But don’t expect them to mean the position of the political parties on fees is about to become any less confusing.
Today, Angela Rayner has promised an end to the ‘failed free market experiment in higher education’.
We will end the “failed free-market experiment in higher education”, and take a tougher line on vice-chancellors’ pay and introduce measures to improve academic diversity. The Tories’ obsession with their free-market dogma has gone too far. https://t.co/Q5XbgXtlFq— Angela Rayner (@AngelaRayner) February 16, 2019
You might think this would mean she and her fellow MPs would warmly welcome a cut in fees. But, meanwhile, her colleague Gordon Marsden, Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Further Education and Skills, has confirmed that, while Labour do want an end to tuition fees, they will also vote against a reduction in fees ‘in any shape or form’ that the current Conservative Government might propose.
Here is a transcript from Gordon Marsden’s interview with Tom Baker, a BBC journalist, on last night’s on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme (from 24:25).
Gordon Marsden: We want to move to abolishing tuition fees because we feel that they have failed students and particularly disadvantaged students.
Tom Baker: You could be in a position where you’re being asked to vote on a reduction of fees. Would you vote for that reduction?
Gordon Marsden: I think our strong inclination would be to reject it in any shape or form because it doesn’t deal with a set of questions that we need for the twentieth-first century higher education and skills.
Tom Baker: But at the same time you’re saying both: that you want to get rid of fees entirely but that you wouldn’t vote in favour of reducing them a bit. Surely you see that that sends mixed messages to students?
Gordon Marsden: No, it doesn’t send, no, it doesn’t send mixed messages at all. Because we do not accept that fees are the be-all-and-end-all of everything.
In one sense, none of this should be a surprise. Jeremy Corbyn rebelled against tuition fees when Tony Blair was Prime Minister and he has displayed a principled objection to them. Indeed, he has been far more consistent in his positioning on fees than most other politicians. It was never likely he was going to whip his MPs to vote for fees at a level which, while lower than now, would still be significantly higher than the fees his own party introduced in the face of his own opposition. But it may still seem surprising to some that a party leader who wants no fees at all will refuse to whip his MPs to vote in favour of lower fees.
If we were living in normal political times, the latest to-ings and fro-ings on tuition fees would be frontpage news. They aren’t but the issue still matters for lots of reasons. One is that it is likely to prove harder for Theresa May to reduce tuition fees than many people think. Like recent votes on the Brexit deal, lower fees may fail because they are not enough people’s preferred option.