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Keir Starmer is right to U-turn on tuition fees. The funds will be better spent elsewhere | Polly Toynbee

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There’s been a lot less hoo-ha about Labour’s retreat on abolishing tuition fees than some expected. Large numbers, even among students themselves, think paying for their own degrees is fair: YouGov yesterday found 50% of them pro-fees with only 30% wanting the public to pay through general taxation.

Turkeys voting for Christmas? One higher education expert suggests to me, “Students tend to be progressive,” and there is nothing very progressive in these hard times about spending billions on those already destined to be higher earners.

This U-turn has long been signalled, as Keir Starmer and others kept refusing to repeat the pledge he once made to abide by the Jeremy Corbyn manifesto on fees. But it was not intended to be announced days before the local elections, with irritation in the shadow cabinet and especially in the education team at whoever briefed the Times before they had finalised what system would replace it. Starmer said, in his rather lacklustre Today programme interview on Tuesday, that the system is unfair and needs reforming. They will announce an alternative before long.

Those who object to him reneging on an early pledge warn of the fate of Nick Clegg. But that’s precisely what he wants to avoid: Clegg never thought he’d be in power so he made a promise he knew was wildly extravagant and untargeted. Labour does better to be straight about any impossible pledges before, not after a general election.

Is it wicked to over-promise to party members in order to get selected? It seems they all have to do it: consider Sunak pledging vast EU deregulation he now resiles from, swearing eternal animosity to all things European then settling with them, and his pledge to cut the basic rate of income tax from 20p to 16p. But even then, the Conservative membership chose Liz Truss, not him, and that didn’t work out so well. Party members (less than 1% of the population) are by nature more extreme than the voters parties need to win, often wanting the impossible. Few think Labour would be where it is now under Rebecca Long-Bailey, who came second to Starmer in the 2020 leadership election.

But if it was her, or anyone else cleaving to the Corbyn manifesto, they would be promising to spend a fortune on abolishing fees, some £13bn and £15bn with maintenance grants restored, according to Nick Hillman, head of the Higher Education Policy Institute. If you were given that sort of cash to spend on our bare bones education system, what would you do? First, look at what drags us down the international tables and the reason the country lacks vital skills. It’s not our very successful university education. It’s the long tail of failure among the 40% who don’t get good enough GCSEs needed for most good training or jobs: just 60% get the grade 5 and above by which schools are judged in league tables.

‘Starmer said that the system is unfair and needs reforming.’ Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Although more go to university and more take A levels than in the past, you would challenge why so many fail: some 10% of school-leavers stay stubbornly Neet (not in employment, education or training), a barren time that scars their earning ability for the rest of their lives. The overarching reason is Britain’s high rate of inequality compared with similar countries: more equal countries, regardless of national wealth, do best in their overall results. But even within that dismal context, an education budget can channel its resources to lift the chances of children almost born to fail.

You would want to spend any penny of extra education funds on where it makes a difference to most lives and to the future economy. That’s early years, from birth to five, where destinies are fixed that rarely change thereafter, where Labour’s Sure Start was brilliantly targeted, but demolished and vandalised post-2010.

For every year in school the gap widens accord to social class. Half of the pupils failing at GCSE had already fallen well behind at the age of five. Every penny spent at the youngest age yields far more change in social trajectory than ever again. The rest is remedial. Yet nursery education is stricken, nurseries closing, many with only low-qualified staff not the skilled teachers who make the difference.

Next, you would use any extra for education on FE colleges, those gardens of second and third chances for students failed at school but picked up with myriad courses to set them on their way. They were rebuilt and revalued under Labour, but neglected and downgraded ever since, their teachers paid even less than school teachers.

What else? You would look at the deserts in many hard-pressed schools, as headteachers struggling to provide the bare minimum mourn the loss of all the things that enrich school life and leave everlasting memories – music, dance, drama, sports, arts and school trips, all vanishing.

Looking grimly at all that, Labour should plainly not spend billions abolishing student fees to benefit the lucky students who already made it over the bar. However, there are still serious issues about university funding to address. Institutions hire staff on insecure contracts and in order to subsidise the education of domestic students universities have become reliant on recruiting higher fee paying foreign students and expanding the range of courses on offer.

Universities should be expanding, but not for reasons of income alone. The UK needs as many highly skilled workers as possible. One reason the Tories want to cap numbers is their fear of graduates: as today’s elections will confirm, wherever there are more graduates there are fewer Conservative voters. Researching this Tory-scaring phenomenon, the rightwing thinktank, Policy Exchange, found an even more alarming fact: school students at 16 and 17 studying for A-levels and university are already strongly anti-conservative. Trying to cap university numbers will not prevent the threatened demographic death of conservatism.


There’s been a lot less hoo-ha about Labour’s retreat on abolishing tuition fees than some expected. Large numbers, even among students themselves, think paying for their own degrees is fair: YouGov yesterday found 50% of them pro-fees with only 30% wanting the public to pay through general taxation.

Turkeys voting for Christmas? One higher education expert suggests to me, “Students tend to be progressive,” and there is nothing very progressive in these hard times about spending billions on those already destined to be higher earners.

This U-turn has long been signalled, as Keir Starmer and others kept refusing to repeat the pledge he once made to abide by the Jeremy Corbyn manifesto on fees. But it was not intended to be announced days before the local elections, with irritation in the shadow cabinet and especially in the education team at whoever briefed the Times before they had finalised what system would replace it. Starmer said, in his rather lacklustre Today programme interview on Tuesday, that the system is unfair and needs reforming. They will announce an alternative before long.

Those who object to him reneging on an early pledge warn of the fate of Nick Clegg. But that’s precisely what he wants to avoid: Clegg never thought he’d be in power so he made a promise he knew was wildly extravagant and untargeted. Labour does better to be straight about any impossible pledges before, not after a general election.

Is it wicked to over-promise to party members in order to get selected? It seems they all have to do it: consider Sunak pledging vast EU deregulation he now resiles from, swearing eternal animosity to all things European then settling with them, and his pledge to cut the basic rate of income tax from 20p to 16p. But even then, the Conservative membership chose Liz Truss, not him, and that didn’t work out so well. Party members (less than 1% of the population) are by nature more extreme than the voters parties need to win, often wanting the impossible. Few think Labour would be where it is now under Rebecca Long-Bailey, who came second to Starmer in the 2020 leadership election.

But if it was her, or anyone else cleaving to the Corbyn manifesto, they would be promising to spend a fortune on abolishing fees, some £13bn and £15bn with maintenance grants restored, according to Nick Hillman, head of the Higher Education Policy Institute. If you were given that sort of cash to spend on our bare bones education system, what would you do? First, look at what drags us down the international tables and the reason the country lacks vital skills. It’s not our very successful university education. It’s the long tail of failure among the 40% who don’t get good enough GCSEs needed for most good training or jobs: just 60% get the grade 5 and above by which schools are judged in league tables.

keir starmer
‘Starmer said that the system is unfair and needs reforming.’ Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Although more go to university and more take A levels than in the past, you would challenge why so many fail: some 10% of school-leavers stay stubbornly Neet (not in employment, education or training), a barren time that scars their earning ability for the rest of their lives. The overarching reason is Britain’s high rate of inequality compared with similar countries: more equal countries, regardless of national wealth, do best in their overall results. But even within that dismal context, an education budget can channel its resources to lift the chances of children almost born to fail.

You would want to spend any penny of extra education funds on where it makes a difference to most lives and to the future economy. That’s early years, from birth to five, where destinies are fixed that rarely change thereafter, where Labour’s Sure Start was brilliantly targeted, but demolished and vandalised post-2010.

For every year in school the gap widens accord to social class. Half of the pupils failing at GCSE had already fallen well behind at the age of five. Every penny spent at the youngest age yields far more change in social trajectory than ever again. The rest is remedial. Yet nursery education is stricken, nurseries closing, many with only low-qualified staff not the skilled teachers who make the difference.

Next, you would use any extra for education on FE colleges, those gardens of second and third chances for students failed at school but picked up with myriad courses to set them on their way. They were rebuilt and revalued under Labour, but neglected and downgraded ever since, their teachers paid even less than school teachers.

What else? You would look at the deserts in many hard-pressed schools, as headteachers struggling to provide the bare minimum mourn the loss of all the things that enrich school life and leave everlasting memories – music, dance, drama, sports, arts and school trips, all vanishing.

Looking grimly at all that, Labour should plainly not spend billions abolishing student fees to benefit the lucky students who already made it over the bar. However, there are still serious issues about university funding to address. Institutions hire staff on insecure contracts and in order to subsidise the education of domestic students universities have become reliant on recruiting higher fee paying foreign students and expanding the range of courses on offer.

Universities should be expanding, but not for reasons of income alone. The UK needs as many highly skilled workers as possible. One reason the Tories want to cap numbers is their fear of graduates: as today’s elections will confirm, wherever there are more graduates there are fewer Conservative voters. Researching this Tory-scaring phenomenon, the rightwing thinktank, Policy Exchange, found an even more alarming fact: school students at 16 and 17 studying for A-levels and university are already strongly anti-conservative. Trying to cap university numbers will not prevent the threatened demographic death of conservatism.

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