Labour's manifesto commitment to abolish university tuition fees has been immensely popular, especially with younger voters, and has helped reset the higher education agenda, with Theresa May (at the time of writing still the prime minister) recently proposing a freeze on fees and changes to loan repayments. Labour's policy has nonetheless been derided and condemned by numerous self-defined 'progressive' commentators. Various arguments have been put forward in defence of fees, including: the current system is progressive, because only the highest earners will pay back the full cost of their loans; abolishing fees would amount to a subsidy or bribe directed at the middle classes at the expense of the poor; the introduction and raising of fees have coincided with ever-rising student admissions.
None of these arguments in favour of fees withstands intelligent scrutiny. A system which has produced the highest student debts in the developed world cannot without irony be described as 'progressive', (1) and if we take into account--as we must--variable graduate starting salaries, the interest on loans, and the period of repayment then it cannot even be claimed that wealthier students will pay the most. (2) It is not the case that all students are middle class, and given that Labour plans to fund its pledges mainly through raising corporation tax, increasing income tax for the highest earners, and reducing tax avoidance, the burden of financing universities is not going to fall on the poor. Whilst UK and EU undergraduate entrants to English universities reached an all-time high in 2016-17, this figure disguises troubling trends, including a decline in part-time (and especially mature) students and huge variation and instability within the sector (many post-92 universities in particular have seen admissions fall rapidly). (3) Applicant numbers for 2017 entry have also fallen. (4)
Above all, those who defend tuition fees tend to ignore the wider context within which they have been implemented and the fundamental changes that have been made to English higher education over the past thirty years. The shorthand term for those changes is 'neoliberalism': the introduction and escalation of tuition fees has reflected and advanced the neoliberalisation of English universities. (Thanks to devolution, this development is not as acute in the other nations of the UK.)
Fees in context
Although a complex and contested concept, neoliberalism is ultimately that which, in the words of David Harvey, 'seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market'. (5) In higher education, this has in large part meant the opening up of the sector to private companies. Prior to 2010, this manifested itself largely in the privatisation of non-academic functions, through the outsourcing of services such as catering, security, and estates management. Since 2010, however, the Conservatives (initially in coalition with the Liberal Democrats) have done their best to encourage the creation and growth of private universities. The tripling of tuition fees in 2012 to [pounds sterling]9,000 per year was combined with the withdrawal of the block grant for the teaching of arts and social sciences. The aim of this policy--in addition to reducing deficit spending (because loans do not count towards the deficit)--was to level the playing field for new providers by removing the government...