As part of an effort to win over younger voters, the government is reportedly considering changes to tuition fees such as cutting interests rates and cracking down on which universities can charge the highest fees. Certainly, at 6.1 per cent, rates for this year are eye-wateringly high – and apply even before the student has graduated. But only 23 per cent of students are now expected to ever pay back the loan in full, before it is written off at the age of 50. Any small tweak to repayments will only benefit these top-earners, as payments are fixed at 9 per cent of income – no matter how much of the loan remains. Most graduates would only benefit from more radical reform.
For now though, it’s much more important for the Tories to get across why dealing with our national debt matters. Young people don’t like the idea of taking on a massive debt before even thinking about a mortgage. That much is clear from the popularity of Corbyn’s promise to abolish tuition fees. Yet government debt per person is now approaching £31,000. Interest payments alone are 6 per cent of government spending – taxpayers’ money given away to those rich enough to buy up government debt. This is a debt which every young person will inherit, whether they went to university or not.
It is striking that not wanting to ‘pass a huge debt onto our children and grandchildren’ is a common formulation, but seldom addressed directly to younger voters themselves. It is a significant failure of the 2017 campaign that the Conservatives did not make the argument to young people that John McDonnell’s plan to borrow even more is above all a threat to them. Indeed, Labour’s refusal to match pledges such as reforming the triple lock on pensions and means-testing winter fuel allowance shows they are not serious about dealing with the debt the next generation will have to pay off.
With older voters, it is sufficient to point to the memories of the 1970s and 80s. But the Conservatives failed to win among any age group which turned 18 in 1989 or later, and attracted less than a quarter of under 30s. The failures of dyed in the wool socialism (and links to the IRA) don’t have the same resonance. Young people need to be convinced that a 90 per cent debt to GDP ratio is more worrying than a tuition fee loan they’ll probably never have to pay off; that tough choices, not Corbynism or Corbynism-lite, will ultimately give them a fair deal.