Keir Starmer has reneged on another of his ten leadership pledges – the one that guaranteed he would “support the abolition of tuition fees“. This is despite the Labour Party leader firmly assuring party members and the public during the 2020 leadership election that the pledge “will be in a Starmer manifesto“. He has deceived members who voted for him on the basis of his ten Pledges. Moreover, Starmer has hung out to dry students across the country who turned out in force in 2017 and 2019 to vote for Labour. He did so just days before the local elections.
Tuition fees: decades of objection from students and Labour members
Students both within and outside the Labour Party have long argued against the fee-based model of higher education. From their introduction in 1998 by Tony Blair’s government, student organisations all over the UK have opposed tuition fees. The National Union of Students (NUS) has repeatedly criticised them, barring a brief interlude from 2008 to 2014. Predictably, this was during the presidency of a certain Wes Streeting. Former NUS vice president for higher education Hillary Gyebi-Ababio called on the government to both “abolish tuition fees, and write off student debt“.
In February, the newly re-established Labour Students organisation passed a motion committing to the abolition of tuition fees. It also called for the restoration of maintenance grants. This followed widespread calls by university Labour societies for the party to follow through on Starmer’s now-dropped tuition fees pledge.
Student members play a significant role in local party bodies, election campaigns, and organising for the party on campuses across the UK. However, our views and participation within the party can often be met with grudging tolerance at best, and outright hostility at worst. The catchphrase of ‘student politics’ – simply meaning young people and students engaging in politics – is thrown around as euphemism for immature and overly idealistic politics. Of course, this is despite students knowing our situations and what is best for us. We are experts on outrageous rents, bad public transport, high living costs, and education systems that governments have thrown open to the free market.
Ruining students’ lives
The abolition of tuition fees would move the country away from the present fee-based model. It has created £182bn worth of student debt overall, with an average student owing £45,800. Average debt rises amongst poorer students to £57,000 due to the necessity of higher maintenance loans. So, a visionary Labour manifesto should include detailed education policy and funding across primary, secondary, higher, and further education. It must also see the policy through a lens of the de-marketisation of all education.
Scrapping tuition fees would transform students’ and graduates’ lives. It would mean each cohort no longer graduates with a mountain of unpayable debt. In tandem with the restoration of maintenance grants to reduce total debt, and the reformation of the Office for Students ‘from a market regulator to a body of the National Education Service, acting in the public interest’, the next government has the opportunity to upend education in the UK for generations to come.
It incomprehensible for Starmer to drop the abolition of tuition fees when over half of voters aged 16-35 voted Labour in 2019. Young people overwhelmingly endorse 2019 manifesto commitments such as public ownership of transport and energy, as well as the abolition of tuition fees. Given that a general election is due next year and the 2024 manifesto is in the first stages of development right now, it seems that Starmer has wholly misjudged students and their priorities.
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What we need is the de-marketisation of higher education. This starts with the abolition of a fee-based model for higher education, transforming it from a commodity to be bought and sold into a public service that benefits all like healthcare, welfare, and utilities.
Starmer: not trustworthy
Starmer has committed a monumental betrayal of all students just hours before vital local elections get underway in England. However, this also demonstrates how Starmer and the team around him are failing to win over younger voters or give them reasons to vote for Labour. A few hours after the announcement on Tuesday 2 May, Starmer asked party members and supporters on Twitter to ‘Vote Labour’, telling them “it’s time to build a better Britain“. This will be impossible without Starmer’s 2020 policy commitments. Moreover, it will also be impossible because students and young people can no longer trust his word on anything.
Students are experts on our own situations, good and ill; our lives; our worries, and our debts. It is unfortunate that the Labour leadership are now actively at odds with Labour Students on tuition fees. It is more worrying in the long term that Starmer is totally ignoring students and young people in the party. Any manifesto that wins over students, school leavers, and young people as a whole must show bold leadership on breaking the cycle of extortionate tuition fees and lifelong student debt.
George Taylor is a postgraduate student at the University of Aberdeen and the Youth & Students Officer for Aberdeen Labour
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