Downing Street and CCHQ are hoping that Jeremy Corbyn’s u-turn on tuition fees will do to Labour with students what Nick Clegg’s did for the Liberal Democrats. This is possible, but unlikely, for three reasons. First, the yellow party was in government, and voted in the lobbies (mostly) for a policy it had previously opposed. Corbyn’s party is in opposition, where scrutiny is less intense. Second, there isn’t an election on. It is the holiday season and most voters are tuned out. They won’t have followed the row. Third, the u-turn applies to past students, not present or future ones. Corbyn had indicated that he would “deal with” some historic student debt. Estimates for the cost of this vary from £30 billion to £100 billion. It was an extravagant commitment to have made, though no less so than many of his others. A climbdown was always likely. But his commitment to scrap tuition fees remains essentially intact.
Since the Conservatives presumably won’t follow suit, is their cause doomed among students? The prospect of having no debt where one would previously have had some is certainly an incentive to vote Labour, assuming that one is naive enough to believe that Corbyn would be likely to deliver his pledge. But although applications for higher education seem to be dipping, they are doing so from a historically high level. Record numbers of 18 years olds were accepted into University last year. Roughly a third of young people are in higher education. So those terrifying debt figures don’t seem to be having much of an impact on University recruitment, even on students from a disadvantaged background. Applications may have dropped, but they are at the highest ever recorded from the areas least represented in higher education (though those from young white people appear to be falling again, thus intensifying one of the “burning injustices” of which Theresa May has complained).
Potential students have presumably worked out that those alarming debt figures are largely irrelevant. As Martin Lewis has pointed out, they will repay nine per cent of everything earned above £21,000 after graduating. This means that they pay nothing below that figure. Repayments stop after 30 years regardless. Meanwhile, what is repaid bears no relation to the size of the debt, and the rate of interest is, in Lewis’s words, “often irrelevant”. He has had a lot of fun pointing out that one student with £20,000 worth of debt and another with £1 billion make exactly the same annual repayment of £900 on a £31,000 salary. “This is why I believe ‘student loans’ is a misnomer,” he says. “Elsewhere similar schemes are called a graduate contribution. We should too”.
But it does not follow that because student loans are subsidised it is automatically worth applying for University. The drop-out rate has edged up again, and has been above five per cent since 1997. So a small percentage of young people exit after entry. It may be that they calculate that with a significant proportion of graduates taking jobs below degree level (one survey suggested half), rampant grade inflation (the proportion of students gaining firsts is at a record high), and employers complaining that graduates aren’t “up to the job”, their original decision to apply was a mistake. Perhaps Jo Johnson’s scheme to publish more information about the quality of education that universities provide, and to open up the market to new entrants, is designed in part to light a fire beneath the less effective institutions. At any rate, Graeme Archer, who writes on this site today, was right to dub the present settlement “the great University mis-selling scandal”.
The Conservatives have been spooked by the support among young people for Corbyn in June. Lord Ashcroft’s survey of 14,000 people on election day suggests that only 18 per cent of 18-25s voted Tory, while 67 per cent supported Labour. Far less ink and pixels have been spent on 24-35 year olds, who voted in much the same way. Perhaps the explanation is psychological: we feel intuitively that the future lies with young people, and so tend to focus on the youngest. When members of Conservative Associations worry away about recreating local branches of the Young Conservatives, but neglect to recruit among the fit, active, recently retired – a more likely source of membership and support – they display this aspect of human nature. But the fact is that relatively few seats fit the student-crammed profile of Canterbury, the loss of which has caused such a stir, especially in the marginal seat-rich Midlands and North.
However, this is not to say that the youngest tranche of voters should be surrendered to Labour. After all, support for the Conservatives among young voters was buoyant less than five years ago. That they have no memory of socialism can be a plus as well as a minus. The Party can scarcely put its case worse among them next time than it did last, when it failed to make the case for the market at all, and ran a campaign that scarcely touched on the economy, jobs, and prosperity. There would be no point in paying no tuition fees for a University education if you can’t get a job after leaving one – once Corbyn has wrecked the economy. It goes almost without saying that the Conservatives must find the case for their beliefs to the next generation over the new few years. Ruth Davidson’s essay on reviving and reforming capitalism on UnHerd would be an interesting place to start.
It is early for specific policies, but here are two – one old, one new. The Conservative Manifesto pledged “a major review of funding across tertiary education as a whole, looking at how we can ensure that students get access to financial support that offers value for money”. That sounded a lot like a smaller University system and a larger technical one, with new grants or loans for those taking the proposed T-levels, or studying in the new institutes of technology that the manifesto proposed, or undertaking apprenticeships. It is uncertain how much of this vision can now be delivered by a government with no majority. But it ought to appeal to many of the two-thirds of young people who are not in higher education as well as some of those who are.
Finally, it is arguable that the reason for students turning their back on the Tories has as much to do with their present condition as their future one. George Osborne scrapped maintenance grants for poorer students in 2015. The move was part of his policy of protecting older richer retired people, in terms of public spending provision, at the expense of younger poorer working ones (though he was very much on the side of the latter when it came to housing). On this site recently, Salman Anwar suggested breaking the link between student maintenance costs and parental income by introducing a universal maintenance loan. That proposal, or something like it, might help restore the balance that the former Chancellor altered, if advanced in the manifesto of 2022, or whenever the next election happens.