27 Feb 2015

Dancing to the tune of a tuition fee cut

​​​​​Some senior Labour figures have taken a lot of convincing about the tuition fees policy announced today. Some still aren’t there.

But even sceptics round the shadow cabinet table acknowledge that the young voter reaction they’ve seen to the tuition fee reduction is stunning.

I went to Reading University today to test a random sample of students. A lot of the students live in Reading East, held by Conservative Rob Wilson with a 7,600 majority.


The Lib Dems were in second place with a chunky vote, and in theory Labour in close third could squeeze it and march in. But Labour’s designated the tighter contest, in Reading West, the target marginal.

First signs among the students were that the maintenance grant hike was particularly welcome (among the half of students who get it), the combination of the two messages – tuition fees and maintenance grant – were pretty good retail offers attracting some students. But there’s some hostility in the student body to two-party politics and a few students were backing the Greens.

Whatever happens to the student vote, the vice-chancellor, Sir David Bell, who was permanent secretary to Ed Balls at education and more briefly to Michael Gove, is concerned that Labour is trying to mend a university funding policy that “isn’t fundamentally broken”.

Reading students

Picture: Reading University students dance the Macarena today in appreciation of Ed Miliband

Reading’s applications were up 20 per cent this year despite the £9,000 tuition fees in operation. He worries that in lean times the money Labour says it’s designating for the universities to make up for the shortfall in tuition fees might just be grabbed for other causes. As another university vice-chancellor put it, “one NHS winter crisis and they’ll be grabbing it back”.

Most of the money to pay for the giveaway to students is coming from a raid on pension tax relief. The IFS doesn’t like it at all and says it is “incoherent”.

The assault on tax reliefs could be a big part of the next administration’s story whoever governs. In this first instalment it looks on today’s evidence as though Labour has found a victim whose screams do not chill the British public at large.

What the vice-chancellors find hard to believe is that the rolling back of the state in the higher education sector, as in so many other parts of the public sector, is truly going to be rolled forward again in perpetuity and that the state through taxation will make good a funding gap formerly hived off to students.

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