Would free university places help the poor?
The short answer is ‘no’ – in the medium and long-term free university places punish the poor and make university something for the rich, taking us back in time.
Labour woes students with the promise of free university places. However, the reality is that after tuition fees were introduced it made a possible for more and more people to access University and numbers of the working class students rocketed. There was more funding for more course and more tutors. Everybody benefited.
Free university ensures that only the cream every get a university place. Universities are reliant on government funding, so places are limited. Many of these limited places go to foreign students who pay high fees which under-funded universities rely upon. This is what is currently happening in Scotland where university is free. Scottish student numbers are falling, fewer poorer background students go to university (half the percentage rate to UCAS universities). This is mainly because standards are poor and universities are underfunded.
Currently in England you can ‘borrow’ £9,250 fees paid to the university and up to £8,200 maintenance payable by 9% tax above £21,000 a year written off after 30 years. Student numbers as percentage of population is the highest ever, proportion from poorer background likewise. Universities are happy as they are less dependent on government money.
Before university fees were introduced nobody from my housing estate every went to university. It was only for the cleverest middle-class students. Some kids were bright but unlike their middle -class counterparts, they couldn’t afford private tuition fees, extra books, access to technology, educational trips with their parents, their own study space etc. They just went to a comprehensive school and tried their best. They were very rarely going to be top students because the odds were stacked against them.
When university fees were first introduced in the form of loans it changed things. So those bright kids from my estate thought that they might have a chance. They could consider university for the first time. They believed that if they borrowed money, went to university and worked hard, that they could get a good job, pay the money back and be on the ladder to prosperity. A good job would mean a better life, owning their own home in a nicer area, being more prosperous. It meant that their kids wouldn’t grow up on a housing estate where gangs, drugs and crime were the norm. It was a long-term dream but it was the first dream that they had dare to have.
I understand that promising poor people free things is appealing. I understand that people take their chances where they can and if you are lucky enough to get a university place before the house of cards inevitably falls down, then you may benefit. However, if you look at the bigger picture, this policy is not good for working class people and in time will reduce working class student places by fifty percent.
The other thing to consider in this is that Labour’s ambitious plans are not affordable. They want to tax the rich but will spend this money ten times over if they attempt to actually deliver on what they have promised. The only way to raise the money will be to tax ordinary people or have to borrow for day to day living. Ed Balls has warned that Labour will hit working people with tax rises to fund Corbyn’s spending plans.
Just before the election, Corbyn promised to wipe out existing students debts. This encouraged many to vote Labour. After the election we found out the this was likely to cost £100 billion, was not budgeted for and wasn’t feasible. Labour’s university pledges were shown to be meaningless.