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Theresa May’s tuition fees plan is rotten politics

20 February 2018

12:37 PM

20 February 2018

12:37 PM

I don’t really object to bad policy, it’s the rotten politics I can’t stand. There would be something almost amusing about a Conservative prime minister gravely intoning, in effect, ‘Labour are right; please don’t vote for them’ if it weren’t so head-thuddingly stupid. 

Remarkably, however, this is the position into which Theresa May has put herself. Labour’s policy on university tuition fees may be a) ruinously expensive and b) a boon to the most affluent but it is c) easily understood. Labour would – or, rather, say they would – scrap tuition fees. 

Responding to this – and, more broadly to their problem with ‘younger’ voters (i.e., anyone under 50) – the prime minister concedes the broad thrust of Labour’s criticism while doing, for the time being anyway, very little to address it. Her message is, essentially, ‘We feel your pain but not as keenly as Labour do. Please vote for us anyway.’ As a previous prime minister once said, ‘Weak, weak, weak’. 

So a review will be set up to investigate the matter with the clear hint that fees will be reduced by a bit though not, obviously, to the level Labour promise (zero). The good news, young people, is you won’t be landed with tuition fees of £27,000. You’ll only have to repay £20,000. Plus, of course, the cost-of-living loans many of you will continue to need. As gruel goes, this is thin stuff. Why would you expect any undergraduate or would-be undergraduate to be impressed by it? 

Compounding this, the Conservatives also worry that too many people are attending university, including plenty who will benefit little from the experience. If this is a problem – and you may very well think it is – reducing the amount of debt graduates are saddled with will not solve the problem. Indeed, it is more likely to exacerbate it. So you have two Conservative goals which are all but mutually exclusive. And, mystifyingly, we are asked to take this stuff seriously? Pull the other one, Prime Minister, it’s the one with bells on it. 

A policy which says, ‘We feel your pain. So instead of hitting you with an axe we will hit you with a hammer’ is not a good policy. Worse, it is terrible politics; the kind of politics which makes you despair. 

Now, as the Scottish example demonstrates, ‘free’ tuition is not the same as ‘free’ university. Students from poor families in Scotland leave university significantly more indebted than their wealthier counterparts. That’s a political choice – albeit a popular one because ‘free’ tuition makes for nice stories and happy headlines – paid for by sharply reducing the amount of money available for maintenance grants. The amount of grant-money available in Scotland has been cut by 35 per cent since the SNP came to power. (Add the impact of a four year degree and a lower debt-repayment threshold, and you create a situation in which the 20 per cent of graduates with the lowest lifetime earnings actually repay more than their counterparts in England, even though they are not saddled with fees. The Scottish government would prefer you not to know this.) The limited amount of money available in Scotland leads to a cap on Scottish-domiciled places at university while also creating powerful incentives for the universities to seek more lucrative undergraduates from overseas. 

There are problems with the system as it applies in both Scotland and England (students in Wales, by the way, probably get the best deal of all, not least because they enjoy higher than typical grants). But at least the SNP has a clear story to tell when it comes to this subject. So, albeit in opposition, does the Labour party. The Conservatives, by contrast, appear to be edging towards a policy that is neither one thing nor the other. Apologising for your own record in office is bad enough; apologising for your record and then failing to correct it is even worse. 

To the extent Theresa May has had an operating style in Downing Street, it has been based on not being David Cameron (or George Osborne). If Dave’n’George did something, Mrs May would do the opposite. That’s one explanation for the Tories’ baffling decision to roll-back their social media efforts before the last general election. May’s people were more serious than that, you understand, and Nick Timothy – busy thinking big thoughts – wanted you to be impressed by the seriousness of his programme for Britain. He was building an army of virtue, you see. 

Well, Fiona Hill gets a bad rap – the rules for women swearing at people are sometimes different to those that apply to men – but, as with the dementia tax, I like to think she’d have spotted this is a stinker were she still in a position to offer the prime minister her advice. In her absence, does anyone in Downing Street actually understand how to play this game?

This episode, however, suggests that the prime minister badly needs better advice. That’s plainly true in policy terms; it’s even more glaringly apparent in political terms. 

Not that the prime minister is the only offender in this regard this week. No sooner has she dug a hole for herself than along comes David Davis to dig another. The surest way of suggesting Brexit might be a ‘Mad Max-style dystopia*’ is to go on air suggesting it won’t be a ‘Mad Max-style dystopia’. So, it’s been a great week for the government thus far. And it’s only Tuesday. 

*Spoiler alert: it probably won’t be.

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