Myself, Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn were among those MPs who rebelled against Tony Blair’s decision to introduce tuition fees in 1998.
I remember speaking alongside student campaigners for free education who rightly warned that the Labour government’s decision was the thin end of the wedge when it came to passing the costs of education on to students themselves.
There was something particularly angering about seeing MPs who had themselves benefited from a free university education voting to take away the ladder of opportunity for future generations.
Now, as the Conservatives announced in the recent Queen’s Speech that they are looking to increase tuition fees yet again, we can see how the principled position of arguing for investment in free education has been proven correct time and again.
The Tory government’s new plans would allow the “best” universities to increase tuition fees yet again.
Students are already paying up to an absurd £9,000 annually, making England one of the most expensive places to study in the world, and are graduating with an average debt of over £40,000.
The “best” universities will be determined by a league table on which institutions perform best on teaching and learning.
These will of course be those institutions that are the best funded, which will entrench a two-tier higher education system.
And of course, it is not just higher education that is under attack from the Tories’ ideologically driven austerity. The National Union of Students has argued that in the year to come, further education is facing the biggest attacks it has ever seen.
The NUS further argues that the government’s “area reviews” will result in colleges merged, courses cut and huge job losses.
Too often missing from the debate over tuition fees over the last 18 years has been a discussion on the central role higher education could play in promoting long-term prosperity for the British economy and growth in the future.
As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development put it in 2010: “Even after taking account of the cost to the public Exchequer of financing degree courses, higher tax revenues and social contributions from people with university degrees make tertiary education a good long-term investment.”
Indeed, free education would pay for itself. The government’s own figures show that for every £1 invested in higher education, the economy expands by £2.60.
The rewards of investing in free higher education couldn’t be higher — both in that need to invest in education to give young people the chance to fulfil their potential and in that we need to invest in education to ensure Britain has a highly skilled, high-growth economy in the long term.
This would especially be the case if such investment was alongside investment in technology and infrastructure.
As the Nobel prize-winning economist and former head of the World Bank Professor Joseph Stiglitz has pointed out, “investments in technology, education and infrastructure … such spending will stimulate the economy and create jobs in the short run and promote growth and debt reduction in the long run.”
Indeed, Germany has scrapped tuition fees — proving once again that free education is possible.
And of course, if the government genuinely clamped down on tax avoidance, or indeed scrapped Trident, billions of pounds would be made available to fund free education and other vital public services such as the NHS.
Despite the Tories’ latest attack on this issue, there is hope for the future.
There is one key difference to the current debate around tuition fees — Labour is now led by a firm supporter of free education and the party has energetically launched itself into a campaign against the proposed tuition fee hikes, which over 200,000 people have supported online.
Hopefully campaigning on this issue can force another retreat from the government as we saw on tax credit cuts and the proposed cuts to PIP disability benefits.
But either way, we must get Labour and Jeremy Corbyn in government in 2020 to invest in our future — including investing in free education to benefit our economy and society.
First published in the Morning Star