It has been over a week since the general election. Analysts have been pouring over the results, trying desperately to find the black box that will tell them why Theresa May’s campaign went so dramatically off course.
An emerging consensus is that the results can be explained by generational voting patterns. Some early analysis suggests that a combination of a low turnout among a traditionally Conservative-leaning older voter base (scared off by proposed changes to social care, triple-lock pensions and universal winter fuel allowance), as well as a historically high turnout of younger voters, accounts for the reduced Tory majority.
Polling data seems to suggest that Labour was especially popular among educated young voters. Alongside a more social media-friendly campaign, Labour made a concerted effort to target younger voters, with proposals to wipe all student debt, restore maintenance grants and scrap tuition fees. This had an entirely predictable response at the ballot box.
These proposals ought to have appealed to me. I am newly graduated, I have lots of student debt to pay, and I am one of the historically “unfortunate” students who was hit by tripled tuition fees when I began my undergraduate course in 2012.
You would have to be mad to refuse free cash. Wouldn’t you? The thing is, it’s not actually free if the cost has to be borne by somebody else. And this young voter sweetener would have to be paid by every single taxpayer in the land.
The IFS has calculated that scrapping tuition fees alone would increase the budget deficit by £11 billion. A further £30 billion would be needed to clear the debt accumulated since they were first introduced. Alan Johnson, former Labour Education Secretary describes the proposals as “not affordable”.
The introduction of these policies, alongside ever greater numbers of students, would desperately squeeze university resources – which is what happened in the 1980s. They would also threaten individual student funding, such as grants and bursaries for the most disadvantaged – one of the reasons the Blair government introduced tuition fees in the first place, back in 1998.
Mr Johnson also makes another pertinent point. As somebody who left school at 15 and never went to university, he notes that “there is nothing progressive about working people, many of whom will get nowhere near a university, cross-subsidising mainly middle-class students to have a completely free higher education”.
Moreover, the statistics attest to the sustainability of the current system. Setting the threshold for paying debt back at £21,000 has not deterred anyone from attending university. Far from it. UCAS calculated that in the 2015 academic year, application rates for 18-year-olds living in disadvantaged areas “increased to the highest levels recorded”.
The university inequality gap is also falling. Privileged 18-year-olds in the UK were 3.7 times more likely to apply than their disadvantaged peers in 2006, though by 2014, that ratio had fallen to 2.4.
The situation in Scotland, on the other hand, illustrates that the opposite can happen when tuition fees are scrapped along with grants to lower-income families. One 2014 study showed that Scottish middle-class families were £20 million better off whilst disadvantaged students were £32 million worse off.
So, no. Scrapping tuition fees will not help students. The panacea to all young peoples’ problems will not be found in an illusory free-lunch of subsidised education paid for by the rest of society. Consistent economic growth and job opportunities will do far more to define a young person’s life.
We should be championing politicians who promote high employment, low taxes and meaningful investment in skills and research. Future governments, in return, should continue to invest in maintenance grants for poorer students and fund select research bodies.
Nor should our politicians turn their backs on the many young people who do not attend university – so they should continue to promote apprenticeships, business start ups and encourage entrepreneurs who can deliver social and economic returns in the long term.
There are other areas where the young desperately need help. The cost of living for example and the dearth of affordable property. Where is the housebuilding and the help to buy? Where are the policies which will actually make a difference to our future, rather than putting it in hock?
The gulf between the old and young is widening and no recent government has truly dealt with this generational problem. Certainly, the promise to wipe out tuition fees and student debt will not solve anything. The real solution lies in providing the economic conditions in which young people can develop and thrive as they start out on their careers.