Pledge to abolish university tuition fees needs honing

The UK Labour Party wants to abolish higher education tuition fees for students in England if it wins the general election next month. From as early as this September students would no longer be subject to the highest tuition fees on average of any country in the world.

The Labour Party is fighting this election on the most left-wing platform for more than 30 years and believes that abolishing fees as well as restoring maintenance grants are both the right thing to do, ethically and politically.

However, this policy is unlikely to come to pass. Labour trails the Conservatives by a very large margin in the opinion polls. A victory for Labour would be a shock several sizes bigger than Donald Trump entering the White House last year. This does not mean, however, that the policy pledge does not matter. The policy itself and the response to it tells us much about higher education in England and the need for some more developed thinking regarding what alternatives to present policies could look like.

Global push-back

There have been some signs of global push-back on higher education tuition fees over the past year. The reduction in fees nationwide promised by Hillary Clinton during the election campaign in the United States will not come to pass, but fees are set to be abolished in New York.

In South Korea the newly elected president is making reducing higher education tuition fees a priority and the debate around free higher education continues in South Africa, for example. In the United Kingdom this push-back started earlier – Scotland reduced tuition fees to zero in 2007.

Across these countries such policies are never universally supported, but the ambivalence with which the abolition of fees is viewed in England is noticeable. It is argued that such a strategy will not be a redistributive one and will benefit in the main those from higher socio-economic groups.

Partly, these arguments are motivated by a genuine commitment to redistribution, but also the ability to charge fees and the independence it gives is being jealously guarded by many institutions. There is concern that the cost of abolishing fees will be accompanied by a reduction in teaching and learning funding and a return to controls over the numbers of students that higher education institutions can recruit.

Unexpected outcomes

Where issues of access and equity are concerned, there are significant unknowns with Labour’s approach.

To everyone’s surprise, the trebling of tuition fees has not seen a reduction in participation among younger students. An even greater unexpected outcome has been an increase in participation in higher education of those from geographical areas of low participation.

While the reasons for these rises in participation are not clearly defined, the past five years since fees were dramatically increased have also seen significant increases in investment in activities to widen access to higher education, to the tune of nearly £150 million (US$195 million) per annum through Access Agreements.

These agreements are compulsory between higher education providers charging more than £6,000 per annum in tuition fees (over 90% of them) and the Office for Fair Access – a statutory non-government body. This investment is taken from university fee income.

There is no reason in principle that these agreements could not continue to exist with zero fees. It was under a Labour government that Access Agreements were invented and they invested nearly a billion pounds in the ‘Aimhigher’ national collaborative outreach programme. But this is not clear.

There is a need for greater coherence to construct an alternative approach to higher education participation and access in England. The cost of higher education matters, but as international evidence shows, it does not define participation on its own. What happens in the schooling system and who is providing higher education are equally or more important, for younger students anyway.

Labour has also stated in its manifesto that it would introduce a National Education Service which would offer lifetime support, bringing together schools from primary level, universities and the diversity of other post-secondary providers, based on the concept of the National Health Service in the UK.

There are no real details on how the National Education Service would work, but at least there is potential here to develop a genuinely new approach to education provision and delivery.

Refining the policy

Even if Labour does not win the forthcoming election in the UK, which is very likely, there can still be some value from their commitment to abolishing fees. Keeping an alternative approach in the discourse is always valuable – especially as the UK turns inward to an extent with Brexit. There could be more tangible impacts, however, if the policy was refined.

Increasing fees has led to a decline of more than 50% in mature student participation since 2012. Abolishing fees for this group would not be anywhere near as expensive as the present Labour approach. It would also create an interesting set of incentives that could start to change the character of the student body and support a more genuinely lifelong approach to higher participation.

A more nuanced campaign to abolishing or reducing tuition fees need not stop there. Particular groups of students, such as those not able to be cared for by their parents or those with refugee status, may not be numerous but would benefit greatly from a no-fee deal.

Moreover, thinking needs to extend wider than fees – the Conservatives have kept international students in their immigration targets despite widespread disapproval from the higher education sector. Labour has railed against this, but needs to position internationalisation as part of a different 21st century vision for higher education.

As the UK moves to a possible third term of Conservative-led government, we need an active policy dialogue regarding different ways of delivering higher education. Labour should lead this and needs to go beyond headline-grabbing commitments to abolish tuition fees for all students to do so.

Dr Graeme Atherton is director of the National Education Opportunities Network in the United Kingdom, and editor of Access to Higher Education: Understanding global inequalities, published in December 2016 by Palgrave MacMillan.