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Higher Education and the 2015 UK General Election

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Higher Education and the 2015 UK General Election

By David Ridley

Margaret Thatcher once said ‘There is no alternative’, a mantra which has since been taken up with force by David Cameron and the Coalition. But things are changing, things are always changing, and alternatives may be appearing on the horizon again after almost 30 years of neoliberal hegemony. Austerity is losing credibility (not just in the UK but in Europe as well), and the 2015 General Election presents an opportunity to return the question of alternatives to public debate.

In higher education there is a growing consensus that the Coalition’s introduction of £9000 tuition fees and equivalent loans was a mistake. The net result will be that the new funding system will end up costing more than the system it replaced – this means that the Coalition policy has failed even on its own terms (see my other article for more details).

Originally put forward by people like Andrew McGettigan (see book, The Great University Gamble and Critical Education blog), this critique now forms an important part of Labour’s campaign to win the 2015 election. Although the seventh interim report of their Zero-based review of ‘every pound the government spends from the bottom up’ doesn’t actually commit to any specific policy if Labour were to win the election, Ed Milliband’s recently released pledge card vows to reduce tuition fees to £6000.

Without going into too much detail, the reduction in fees will impact upon even current students, taking effect in September 2016, and this reduction in fees is complemented by an increase in the threshold for maintenance grants (up to £42,000 household income). There have been some knee-jerk reactions from Vice-Chancellors who are afraid that this will produce a funding crisis for universities now reliant on £9000 fees, but in perhaps the most radical part of Labour’s proposals, there is a possibility of a commitment to matching the loss in funding through increases in block grant funding.*

We should perhaps recall an article that Ed Milliband wrote in 2010 for The Guardian, in which he was scathing about the marketisation of HE, writing that ‘the supremacy of the market has extended too far into areas that should not be defined by commodity and exchange.’ In response to the Browne Report, Milliband proposed to write an alternative review, one which would advocate a graduate tax to fund the expansion of HE. This review has never appeared, but this article perhaps indicates a long-term plan that Milliband has been harbouring all along.

Either way, the issue of funding is crucial to the politics and future of higher education. With the election in mind but also thinking beyond May 2015, four possible ways of funding mass higher education have emerged from this debate.

The first option, represented by the Coalition, is that of tuition fees and loans, a regime that seems likely only to intensify if the Tories are re-elected. In the lead up to the election the Tories have been quiet regarding higher education, but the reforms so far, interpreted within the long-term marketisation plan, indicate that eventually the tuition fee cap would be abolished altogether, allowing elite UK universities to begin the race to match the £30,000 annual tuition fees of top US universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

For students, most worryingly, the Tories seem likely to exploit the Terms and Conditions of the student-loans contract, most likely by freezing the repayment threshold.* Not only that, but if critics of marketisation are correct, then the repayment crisis could be used by the government to justify all manner of extreme measures, such as selling-off the loan book altogether or lowering the income repayment threshold.

Put together, the Coalition reforms form a thinly veiled attempt to cash in the publicly accumulated value of higher education, continuing the privatisation of everything begun by Thatcher in the 1980s (helped on by New Labour). The reforms are not so much a plan to reduce the public deficit but to revive a stagnating capitalist economy that has capital stored up but is running out of places to invest it. Thus the purely economic interest that lies behind the marketisation of higher education is revealed – it will be the shareholders and fat-cat managers that will benefit from these reforms, not students and the general public.

Within this context, the Labour proposal to reduce the fees to £6000 seems quite tame, and we have to remember that this would leave the existing system of tuition fees and loans intact. Whether or not Milliband plans to abolish tuition fees and loans altogether, replacing this system with a graduate tax, is not clear at this point.

As an alternative to tuition fess and loans, a graduate tax could be more progressive (although this would depend on repayment conditions and separate arrangements for maintenance loans as well as fees), as students would not be ‘priced-out’ of higher education and wouldn’t have to pay interest on a loan they perhaps couldn’t afford in the first place.* But the ideological essence of the graduate tax is the same as that of tuition fees: higher education is an individual (economic) good, and the sole beneficiary, i.e. the graduate, should pay for these individual (economic) benefits.

In terms of benefits and interests, the Universities and Colleges Union’s proposal to fund higher education through raising corporate income tax moves the debate towards recognising the wider social benefits of higher education. According to the report, the UK has the lowest corporate income tax rate of all G7 countries. The report claimed that raising the UK rate to the G7 average would in 2010 have generated ‘almost £3.9 billion for higher education—more than enough to abolish all tuition fees’, although following the increase of fees it would cost £2.7 billion to lower fees from £9K to £6K.* The argument here is that business should ‘pay its way for the numerous benefits it gets from UK higher education.’

However the UCU’s idea to fund higher education through corporation tax, although admirable and certainly progressive, not only retains the narrow focus on economic benefits (although on a societal level), but also leaves the HE sector more susceptible to the (indirect) influence of corporate interests, which would seem to have a “legitimate” stake in influencing HE policy (especially in terms of research). As well as establishing a sustainable and fair source of funding for mass higher education, we must also be wary of attempts to co-opt the knowledge and social influence of universities (in terms of educating the next generation of socially influential graduates) for purposes other than the public good.

The final alternative is simply to return to a commitment to publicly fund higher education through general taxation. The UCU’s proposal would be an important part of this commitment, in order to create the money for the continuing expansion of higher education, but such moves would have to be a part of a larger progressive political project, one that is generally committed to redirecting wealth downwards. Reducing government spending for expensive military projects such as Trident would also free up money for more important public services such as the NHS and free education at all levels.

As Doreen Massey and Michael Rustin have recently argued in the latest instalment of the Kilburn Manifesto, ‘Displacing Neoliberalism’, recalling Antonio Gramsci, we may be ‘in a situation where a ‘war of position’ needs to be prepared for’, in which ‘no sudden or rapid changes in the balance of power are feasible, but where nevertheless gains over the long term can be made.’ They argue that the ‘value of the victory of a Labour or a Labour-led coalition government in May 2015 is not that it will by itself transform politics or society, but that it can establish a situation in which new thinking and new kinds of political action may again become possible.’

Strategically, therefore, we might want to vote Labour in the coming elections. Recent victories against tuition fees and loans in Germany and Chile show that neoliberal reforms can be reversed. Like the CDU in Germany, Labour could perhaps be pushed to such a position. We need to be critical of election promises and vote with open eyes, but we also need to look beyond the election. The key is to have the right long-term vision for higher education grounded in the public interest, and to work together – students, academics, non-academic workers, unions and politicians – to build a strong and sustainable wider movement to make sure that vision is achieved.


* Article amended 23 March 2015, following comments by Andrew McGettigan

  1. Please see pre-election issue of ‘Forum’ for a discussion that goes wider than fees alone – unfortunately only available on subscription: ‘English Higher Education: fees are only the half of it!’ in Forum, Vol. 57, No.1, pp.59-66. Patrick Ainley


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