Labour, fees and student debt: a failure of branding?

We’re a long way from Labour actually implementing its brave new policy – university fees capped at £6000 per year – but there are certainly an awful lot of left-leaning people asking one thing. Why? When there’s so much evidence that the current system is working (in terms of access and student choice, and also in terms of the quality of provision), and when the evidence of mucking about in this area of policy is staring them in the face (the electoral time-bomb that is the Liberal Democrats), why would they choose this as a flagship-policy for the election?

One reason, I think, is the discourse of ‘debt’. None of the parties ever got the branding of ‘fees’ right, and this has haunted them all. It has created, in due course, the political environment in which Labour might see fee reduction – ‘debt reduction’ – as an election-winner.

It seems to me they got it wrong from the start. Moroever, they got it wrong for the simple reason that they were loathe to admit they were pinching a good idea from the Australians. The Aussies had the ‘Higher Education Contribution Scheme’, which continues to work in a similar manner to the UK’s fees and loans: i.e. repayments taken through the tax system, contingent upon income-levels, and the debt written-off if not repaid after a period of years.

Note that it wasn’t a ‘loan’, in the original Australian version of the scheme, it was a ‘contribution’. Was that sleight of hand? The thing about these schemes is that they introduce a funny kind of debt, that operates almost as much as a tax. The fact that the Aussies charge more for courses that are likely to increase a student’s earnings (not necessarily courses that cost more to teach) underscores this sense of tax-ness. But in the UK this point was lost from the start, as policy-makers on both sides screwed up the branding. Our students got ‘fees’and ‘loans’ and ‘debt’. All the fuss since the fees were introduced about the RAB charge (i.e. the long-term cost of the scheme to the state) has perhaps also been counter-productive, since it’s fostered a perception that the aim of is to ensure universal repayment. That was surely never the case.

Hence what seems to me a peculiarly British discourse of debt. Students, we’re told repeatedly, are ‘saddled with debt’. I lived through the early HECS years in Australia, and I don’t remember hearing that phrase there at all. Moreover, iit’s a weirdly unbalanced metaphor, especially in a country which has achieved great things, over many centuries, thanks to an economy of debt. I’ve read some wonderful economic history demonstrating the importance of debt – indeed the prevalence of debt, throughout all levels of society – in Britain over many centuries. The cost of higher education might more positively have been positioned in this tradition. It’s a debt that generally leads to gains, in terms of income and life choices. But then – magically – if it fails in these promises, it disappears. That beats the risk of negative equity on the mortgage.

One counter-argument to all of this is that the discourse of ‘contribution’, which worked in Australia, is more problematic in the UK. With fees of £9000, that is, many students don’t appear to be supported by the state at all. This isn’t true, since the state is bearing the cost of unpaid future debt; however, this is how it looks, and appearances matter. Furthermore, some students don’t just contribute to the cost of their own degrees, since we know that they can be taught for less than £9000; they therefore contribute to the cost of other people’s degrees as well. I’ve always been surprised how little students complain about this, and it’s barely being raised right now, but it makes ‘contribution’ a tricky word. Even in Australia, interestingly, this word has disappeared: their rebranded HECS is the Higher Education Loan Programme (HELP).

Thinking practically, there’s no obvious reason why £6000 fees could not be made to work. They would make university leaders more dependent upon government: which Labour perhaps perceives as a good thing, though it will cause many a left-leaning vice-chancellor to hover uneasily over his/her ballot-paper in May. (Government, they like to say, is an unreliable partner; the fantasy of independence from the state was perhaps always too good to be true.) But it still feels like a desperate political muddle, at a time when there are so many big left-wing issues staring the Labour Party in the face. Indeed it seems to me that different branding – different discourse – might have put us in a different place.

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