This was originally published on Left Futures
Corbyn’s first policy announcement was to scrap tuition fees and restore the maintenance grants that many students rely on for their rent and food. It was costed at £10bn and two separate strategies were put forward for how to pay for it: slowing down the deficit reduction or raising the revenue through corporation tax and through national insurance on higher earners. Supporters were even encouraged to opt for their preferred option.
The announcement was right in so many ways.
1) It’s #aspirational
The Blairites like to talk about aspiration but if “our vision as a party must start with the aspirations of voters: to get on and up in the world, to see their children and grandchildren do better than they did” then where better to start than with free education? Many will aspire for their children to have the opportunity to go to university. Few will aspire to £50,000 in debt.
2) It’s sound economics
If Labour wants to be the party of fiscal responsibility then it desperately needs to take a stand against our bizarre higher education funding system which, in addition to destabilising university revenue and plunging students into debt, costs the government more than the one it succeeded.
3) It positions him as the obvious candidate of the student movement
For most of the past two decades big chunks of the student movement, for instance both the National Union of Students and Labour Students, opposed free education. That tide is beginning to turn. Last year NUS changed its position and earlier this year grassroots Labour Party members launched a campaign on the issue. When it comes to students, Corbyn has picked a winning issue.
4) It’s popular.
Osborne’s scraping of the student maintenance grant was the least popular part of the budget according to YouGov, and taxation remains by far the most popular way to fund higher educationamongst Labour activists.
5) It’s about shaping society
Free education does not only release graduates from a lifetime of debt and ensure they have enough money to pay their bills, it shapes society for everyone: graduate or otherwise. The way that higher education is funded shapes what courses are offered and to whom, which then shapes the entire makeup of our society. The current tuition fee regime has not stopped people going to university but the debt has forced them to focus much more on future earning potential. Free education means that ordinary people can consider a degree in fine art or in drama, instead of abandoning their hopes for a safer option.
6) It’s only the first of many Corbyn policies.
Of course, faced with a popular, economically-sound policy that oozes aspiration, Corbyn’s detractors have had to come up with a rebuttal. The most common sounds something like “If I had £10bn I would spend it on…”. This entirely misses the mark. We will see other spending commitments on other issues. No one is saying that tuition is the only issue that matters.
7) He is the only candidate to make any expansionary spending commitments at all.
The debate around what we might spend £10bn on is an interesting one, but it’s entirely academic. Corbyn is the only candidate to promise spending at all. So instead of a choice between free tuition and, for instance, hospitals, the real choice we are faced with is between free education and nothing at all. Through their silence the other candidates are saying, in effect, “I would leave the £10bn where it is right now: in the bank accounts of big corporations and the richest in society”. Hardly inspiring.