EMA and tuition fees – the cost of the coalition’s backwards priorities

“Young people are our future”. “Let’s give young people a chance”. “We’re scrapping your EMA”. The first two are sentiments I am sure are echoed by councils all across the country. The latter, one of the first attacks on young people of David Cameron’s government after they took power in 2010.

I support the campaign to Bring Back EMA. “The scrapping of this support was a vicious attack on the aspirations of young people in some of the poorest parts of society” said Diane Abbott. It increased participation. It aided our poorest students. It gave them ambition. It gave them the chance to access education they otherwise wouldn’t have accessed. The attack on EMA was just one attack on the ambitions and achievements of all of our young people. There was more to come.

And today… Today, I kept seeing this posted on Facebook by gleeful Conservative and Liberal Democrat members. But there is no hiding from the facts. £9,000 tuitions fees have deferred young people from low income and minority backgrounds from going to university. 10% fewer people have applied for university than had done at this point last year – dashing the hopes, The Telegraph said, that it was a temporary dip from the first cohort of applicants under the new fees. And despite coalition supporters’ excitement, those from more advantaged areas are still much more likely to apply to university. The picture is much the same as it was last year.

The economic disadvantages of tuition fees are obvious. There is no dressing it up. David Cameron’s government can spin as many “myth-busters” as it wants, they is no avoiding the crippling, mortgage-sized debts which graduates start their working lives with, and high levels of interest mean the debt will increase far faster than it can be paid off. And when you bring living grants and loans into the equation, it makes one wonder just how much our young people and their educations are valued. Without desperate reform, our students will continue to run up enormous credit card debts, live in their overdrafts and work all hours of the day at the detriment of their studies. Just why are young people being targeted in this way? The answer is simple – because they’re seen as an easy target for the government.

Lib Dems broken promises have left a generation of young people angry with government – as we have seen through the sustained student protests. Students all across the country put their faith in Nick Clegg to deliver in their interests and they have done the opposite – selling their morals down the river at the taste of power. Labour has an opportunity to win over these young voters and reengage them – the party people vote for the first time is likely to be the party they vote for again and again, and we need to ensure that these young people trust in Labour

But £6,000 fees just isn’t good enough. Its still £3,000 more than tuition fees were when we left office, and the repayment system means the actual cost to students over their working life will be around the same as if fees were at £9,000. And a graduate tax is not going to win students over either.

For every pound that is spent on Higher Education, the economy benefits £1.50. The net benefit to the treasury of financing an undergraduate degree is £94,000 – equivalent to a rate of return of 10.8%. An “exceptionally good bet for the Treasury“, even in a downturn.

It is suggested that if 30,000 fewer undergraduates enrolled in higher education in 2012-13, then this would lead to an equivalent loss of £6.6 billion to the UK economy over the next 40 years. The benefits of higher education are huge, not just to the individuals, but to the government and wider society.

We are the sixth richest country in the world. We can afford free education. Other, poorer countries have free education and higher levels of Higher Education participation. Politicians sitting in Westminster currently – they had free university education, and dare I say the value of their degree is not any less significant.

Education, like health, benefits everyone – not just graduates. And with graduates more likely to be employed than those without a degree, its benefits cannot be underestimated. A degree in medicine, in law, in teaching. These benefit society as a whole. A well educated population is essential for our economy, and therefore should be paid for out of general progressive taxation, not by graduates themselves.

The cost of supporting our poorest students with EMA and our graduates with tuition fees are a small price worth paying for the benefits they reap. And the backwards priorities of this government towards our young people means they really do know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.


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