Labour are tying themselves in knots trying to fund their promised cut in tuition fees. The Independent reports that shadow ministers are fighting off attempts by the Shadow Chancellor to raid their budgets to fund the scheme.
The failure to agree a funding mechanism is reportedly opening a fissure between Ed Balls and his leader. Ed Miliband is torn between becoming the next Nick Clegg – crucified after u-turning on an un-deliverable promise – and shoring up his position with Liberal Democrat defectors.
But Labour aren’t the only left-wing party for whom higher education funding is causing problems this week.
The Scottish National Party make much of their abolition of tuition fees for Scottish (and European) students – and quietly please their base by levying fees on English, Welsh and Northern Irish students alongside their non-European counterparts.
Yet the net effect of this policy is that Scottish students are getting squeezed out of the country’s most prestigious institutions, according to official figures.
Meanwhile Scottish universities face a funding shortfall relative to English competitors that runs into the millions whilst Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, has pointed out that fewer working-class children go to university in Scotland than south of the border.
Institutions are reportedly afraid to call for fees for fear of a backlash from the Nationalist administration, who have made their opposition to fees a totemic issue. In the aftermath of his referendum defeat Alex Salmond unveiled a stone monument to his vow never to impose them.
Thus rather than levying fees and directing bursaries and scholarships to able kids from deprived backgrounds, the apparently super-progressive Nationalists double down in a middle-class giveaway. All whilst presiding over an education system which, writes Alex Massie in the Spectator, fails its poorer children at every level.
Why is it that tuition fees are a cause of such aggravation for much the left? In large part, it seems to stem from a profound lack of clarity as to what higher education is actually for.
For example, Liam Byrne recently endorsed the principle that university should be free “like the NHS”.
This is a strange comparison because, whatever the role you envision for the private sector in its provision, healthcare is a fundamental service that every citizen of the UK will require at some point.
Yet Labour have never made a convincing case that university is similarly essential: one feels that if they sincerely believed that, they would have no trouble finding the will to fund it.
Indeed the evidence is that there is finite demand for graduates in the UK economy, and that flooding the market has only served to dramatically erode the so-called graduate premium that New Labour ministers hoped would accrue to the 50 per cent of school leavers they planned to send to university.
A compromise proposal whereby Labour would somehow subsidise a select number of ‘useful’ degrees cuts to the heart of the matter: university is too expensive, and not nearly essential enough, to be free for everyone.
Recognise this and a much more useful, technical debate around funding is possible.
Is the role of universities to provide the country with a certain number of technically skilled employees, to fulfil the needs of a modernising economy? Targeted subsidies to such courses are likely affordable.
Is it to allow pupils, whatever their background, a chance to pursue personal ambitions? Then a version of the current fees and loans model, or reform along the lines proposed by the ConservativeHome manifesto’s graduate commission, is fairest: remove the barriers to entry for those who want to try, and allow the benefits to accrue to those who succeed.
Far fairer that than the proposed graduate tax, which has the perverse effect of penalising those who make the most of their degrees – whatever their background – in order to make university a risk-free prospect for those who don’t.
If students meeting the cost of their education eventually leads to a fall in applications – which hasn’t happened yet, for all the dire predictions – would that really be so terrible?
Obviously it would if such a slump were concentrated amongst the disadvantaged, but if a rational cost/benefit calculation led to more people looking for alternatives to university – or even moving straight into employment – it isn’t immediately apparent why that would be a bad thing.
Too many on the left remain bewitched by the superficial appeal of universalism whilst knowing in their hearts that the very limited benefits don’t come close to justifying the costs – eye-watering taxes or under-funded universities.
Politicians like Byrne should come clean with students: higher education is not equivalent to the NHS. It is not universally necessary, and so cannot justify being universally ‘free’.