Is Jeremy Corbyn really out to help the poor – or just to entice the middle classes into his big socialist tent? I ask because the more you examine the manifesto he keeps waving before the television cameras, the more it seems to be designed around giving benefits to the better-off. These won’t come without cost, of course – the better-off will also be paying for the benefits which Corbyn is dangling before their eyes, in the form of higher income taxes, and possibly new wealth taxes, too. But for the moment, it seems to be the potential handouts which are making Labour headlines rather than the prospect of higher taxes.
Could Corbyn potentially sweep to power on the back of the student vote, and the votes of students’ parents? Probably not, but the promise to abolish tuition fees has certainly helped to turn the polls. Would it really help to increase participation of low-income groups in higher education? Not to judge by the experience of Ireland, where tuition fees were abolished in 1996. A study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in 2011 rather poured cold water on the theory that tuition fees are all that stands between us and more children of poor families going to university. The IFS looked at participation rates before and after abolition of tuition fees and concluded that the policy had done absolutely nothing to increase educational opportunities for the poor. On the contrary, it found:
‘The only obvious effect of the policy was to provide a windfall gain to middle class parents who no longer had to pay fees’.
The experience contrasts with that in England when tuition fees were trebled in 2012. In the first year, the number of students from poorer backgrounds rose by 10 per cent in the first year. Why? Because as the IFS found in Ireland, factors other than tuition fees are far more important in determining whether children go on to study at university. The biggest barrier is low educational attainment at school. The English tuition fee increase coincided with a period in which the government was putting pressure on universities to offer places based on lower exam grades to students from poorer backgrounds.
There is a difference between England now and Ireland in 1996. Prior to then, Irish students from poor backgrounds already enjoyed means-tested grants which covered bother tuition fees and living costs. Abolishing the fees, in other words, offered nothing new to them, and in fact put them at a disadvantage because it encouraged more middle class children to apply to university.
If Labour really wants to help the poor, why not means-test free tuition fees? That would work out considerably cheaper than a wholesale end to the fees – which will cost £11 billion. Is it that Labour is shamelessly going after the middle class vote with a bribe? I think the answer is a little more subtle than that. Corbyn opposes means-tests because he wants us all to share in socialism. Like Nye Bevan, who wanted the banker and the architect to live in council housing next door to the welder and the plumber, Corbyn first and foremost wants to make us all clients of the state. In Corbyn’s mind, the well-being of the poor comes second to this principle.