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 [email protected]

See also: Five reasons we need to abolish tuition fees

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

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