A right to education, regardless of ability to pay used to be a mantra of the Labour Party. This weekend Ed Miliband’s proposal of a £6,000 cap on fees left that tradition in tatters. It seems the student’s favourite for leader last year now not only has abandoned his graduate tax proposal, but in fact supports higher tuition fees.
Mr Miliband claims that the cap will make a university education more affordable than the current £9,000 ceiling and Labour have positioned the policy as ‘an alternative available to this government.” If Labour propose to simply double tuition fees rather than treble them, it is not clear what sort of an alternative this presents.
We have received no news yet on changes to rates of repayment. As such, we should be forced to assume that Mr Miliband’s proposal would operate under the same system as the forthcoming Coalition arrangement. Indeed, it will make no material difference for the thousands of students who will never pay back their full loan.
As the Universities Minister David Willetts has so rightly pointed out, Labour’s proposal will not change a thing for the lowest earning graduates. Those earning under £35,000 a year will not have repaid a substantial portion of their student debt by the time it is expunged in 30 years. It will in fact mean richer students are able to repay their debt faster. It’s not clear how Miliband intends to side with any majority, let alone the ‘decent majority’, if he seriously intends to put such an unfair proposal into action.
Why then have the Labour leadership championed this pale imitation of the existing Tory policy? It belies a wider policy change within the party. With Ed Balls’ apology for economic failings, the idea of denial has become dirty. Mr. Balls’ dogged line of “too far, too fast” is part of this. It appears Labour’s alternative is to be the Slightly-Less-Nasty-Party. What is more, a Tory lead in the most recent ComRes poll shows that the electorate doesn’t care for this approach.
Ed Miliband must recognise now that doing just a little less than the Tory government will not win the debate, or an election. If we are to expect a Labour party who won’t lead, who won’t set out a real challenge to Conservative policy, who refuse to bring their own ideas on how to confront the future, a bleak four years await us all.