Burnham & Cooper: putting tuition fees in fancy dress

Andy-BurnhamBy Beth Redmond and Luke Neal

As the last month of the Labour leadership contest approaches, those of us watching with baited breath finally got to see some Actual Policies about education being announced this week.

Liz Kendall pledged to “end inequality from birth” by extending early years education. Jeremy Corbyn announced he could make higher education free by increasing corporation tax by 0.5%. Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, not wanting to stray too far from the middle of the road, announced that they would abolish tuition fees—in favour of a graduate tax.

It’s good that the work the student movement has done over the past 5 years, combined with Corbyn’s (so far) successful campaign and leftward-drag on the leadership election, is having some sort of influence over what the other candidates are saying. That Burnham and Cooper feel the need to disguise their policy and frame it as “abolishing tuition fees” is indicative of the good work of the student movement.

Dressing up moderate policies with a left-wing headline in a bid to steal votes from Corbyn, whose ideas are dominating the leadership election, is nothing new for Burnham. Only a few days ago he announced that he is in favour of re-nationalising the railways, but take a closer look and you will see that he just wants to lift the ban on public providers bidding to compete with private companies running the rails.

A graduate tax isn’t good enough; it’s essentially a rebranding of tuition fees. Burnham claims he wants to “lift the millstone of debt” from students, but is actually proposing a very similar form of funding, namely through decades of deductions from graduate wages. While a graduate tax pushes the headline of a fee into the background, it still depends on the idea that individuals who receive the financial benefit of a degree should pay for the privilege. So what seems like a step forward—taxation rather than loans and debts—actually relies on the same logic: of education as an individual investment in a competitive market. Unless it is a tax to fund HE on wealth itself (as Corbyn is proposing a form of), this represents little progress.

The details of the policy are typically unclear; it is highly unlikely that Burnham and Cooper’s version of “abolishing tuition fees” would apply to students coming to Britain from outside the EU.

Such mild reforms will do little to undo the damage the market is inflicting upon colleges and universities. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts will continue to challenge the rule of the market and fight for free education, funded by taxing big businesses and the rich. We will be encouraging students to vote for Jeremy Corbyn — the only candidate in the Labour leadership election to put our interests on the agenda.

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