Tuition fees remains a hot button topic, and one which differs markedly in Scottish and English debates. Policy for England now relates to Labour’s plans to reduce fees to £6000 per year. My impression is that this move has been received remarkably badly under the circumstances. Consider the fact that, as recently as 2010, the idea of putting fees up to £9000 was highly controversial. It is the issue that helped the Liberal Democrats break their pre-election promise (no fees) in a spectacular way, and showed that the Conservatives wanted to go much further than the Browne review’s recommendation of £6000. If Labour had been elected in 2010, and put fees up to £6000, it would have been heavily criticised. Now, it is being criticised for reducing them to that level. What does this experience show us? First, the centre of gravity can shift very quickly, and parties have to address a tendency towards treating the status quo as the normal position. They are now asked routinely where the money would come from to fund the policy, which has become an effective limit on party ambitions even though the question is rather artificial (governments don’t plan overall funding in this ‘rational’-looking way). Second, the UK coalition has a good story to tell about the £9000 fees: Universities get more money, they use some of that money to give grants or services to students from low income families, and people on low wages may end up not paying the fees anyway. This is hard for Labour to challenge, since its policy can be portrayed as spending money (when times are tight) to subsidise the students that will have higher wages after graduation. Of course, the figures are rather arbitrary (why not raise fees to £12000 and have the Universities redistribute even more?) but the status quo is important.
In Scotland, we can see the other extreme: tuition fees remain free for Scottish and EU students, and there appear to be very few votes in a policy to increase them. Rather, the SNP has made it a line in the sand to keep zero fees (note Alex Salmond’s ‘the rocks will met in the sun’ remark, now immortalised on a stone carving) and Scottish Labour is now claiming that it abolished fees in 2000 (in fact, it reduced fees to £4000 over four years, renamed the repayment the ‘graduate endowment’, and removed the up-front element of payment – which makes little difference when students take out a loan, payable after graduation, anyway). In this case, parties tell a different, but equally effective, story: the Universities get a lot of money direct from government, and student debt is much lower in Scotland than England.
We now have the odd position in which policy for England increases overall debt but can reduce inequality, while policy for Scotland reduces debt – a student in Scotland generally pays less than their equivalent in England – but increases inequality within Scotland. Both systems are remarkably different, and underpinned by very different stories, but they both represent the default position in two areas of the same country during a UK general election.