I’m a student from a low-income background – and I support tuition fees. Labour should too

Scrapping tuition fees would only penalise working class taxpayers. Labour should focus on reducing inequality in education instead.

Labour has been granted an emergency debate on tuition fees on the last day of Parliament tomorrow before recess. Here, Jack Ashton continues Left Foot Forward’s debate on the issue. 

As a socialist, and a student from a low income background, I support tuition fees.

In most respects, I am a stereotypical student: I like books, alcohol, and excessively sleeping – and, because I’d hate to leave the cliché unfinished, I am also a Labour member. Yet I’m against the grain when it comes to fees: I think they’re a broadly socialist policy that helps people who come from low income families like me.

They’re a policy that the Labour party should be proud to support. But the hysteria against them on campus prevents any reasonable debate.

First things first: higher education is going to cost money. So the choice is as follows: we can either make every single person in society pay for it, including the very poorest, through general taxation, or we can choose to relieve the state (and therefore society’s poorest) of as much of this burden as possible by making sure that those who can pay do so.

Data from the IFS shows us that the abolition of tuition fees will hit the poorest in society most. With tuition fees in place, the richest 10% pay roughly four times more with fees than without. The bottom 10% pays the same either way (i.e. nothing if they stay below the earnings threshold) – but will pay more through taxation if they are abolished.

On campus it seems that being a socialist no longer means that you want the redistribution of wealth, or that you want those at the top of society to take the cheque for those at the bottom, it just means that you don’t want to pay for your own stuff, no matter how rich you are.

The situation then becomes that everyone is fine with making the richest in society pay for things – until they become the richest themselves. As the IFS data showed us, abolishing tuition fees is a direct distribution of wealth back up to the richest in society – the exact opposite aim of the Labour movement.

Those who support the abolition cling to the idea that fees discourage low income applicants; this has been disproven by UCAS who say that, despite fees, students from low income families are ‘more likely than ever’ to apply to university.

The issue is that students from lower income families are less likely to apply to top universities – an problem not caused by the existence of tuition fees – and 9% of us drop out when we are there. So instead of wasting £9billion on abolishing tuition fees, Labour should tackle these problems by reinstating maintenance grants to help low income students survive at university, and invest more in early years support through Sure Start programs, to ensure low income students can get to the best universities when they’re older.

The Labour party know this; it was debated at the Clause V meeting. But the idea of abolishing fees is an easy vote winner among young people. The party is stuck between a rock and a hard place in feeling obliged to support an expensive and inegalitarian policy to shore up the youth vote.

Since Labour can’t at present risk losing the student vote by supporting a progressive fees system, the selfish argument in favour of them must end.

Recognising that fees aren’t the problem when it comes educational inequality is a change that needs to come from campus.

Agree/disagree? Join the debate – comment below or email editor@leftfootforward.org

See also: Five reasons we need to abolish tuition fees

Jack Ashton is a writer and student, and runs the blog Jack Talks Politics

6 Responses to “I’m a student from a low-income background – and I support tuition fees. Labour should too”

  1. ad

    But the idea of abolishing fees is an easy vote winner among young people

    Middle class ones, anyway. The working class ones are probably not so bothered.

  2. Mick Hawker

    I too am socialist from a working class background, steelworker for 20 years, now working in the NHS. Whilst training to be an ODP (Operating Department Practitioner) I was paid a wage around £6000 a year, this was 1993. As of next year ODP’s and Nurses (skilled working class jobs) will have to pay for their own training to the tune of £9000 a year for 3 years plus further loans if they want to eat!

    You might be content to take on tens of thousands of pounds of debt but don’t kid yourself that what amounts to a tax cut for a prospective employer is a socialist policy, it’s not.

    Free education should be a right for all, thats a socialist policy.

  3. Karl Greenall

    The tax code needs to be simplified so that absolutely as much tax as is owed is collected. Education is a right, and not s commodity, and it can easily be paid for. We must not fall for the neoliberal saw of accounting for everything and having no appreciation of non-monetary value. I do not object to rich kids being fleeced for their university education, but no unpaid internships whatsoever.

  4. Steve Cross

    I understand that tuition fees in most European countries are around 2k per annum, if this is so why are our students paying so much more at 9k per annum? The issue is how much ‘profit’ should be made from students, from future high (?) tax payers. I want equality of opportunity, I don’t want students from poor backgrounds being deterred from higher education.

  5. Ray Visino

    I think the idea was to raise income tax for those earning over £80k a year, so would not effect low incomes.

  6. Daniel

    But Ray, they still prioritised £10bn abolishing tuition fees rather than reverse Tory cuts to benefits. Is it socialist to keep in place cuts to child tax credits in order reduce the loan repayments of middle class graduates?

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