Tory hypocrisy on student debt knows no bounds

Don’t believe the media lies, it is Corbyn’s Labour that cares about obscene levels of student debt, writes KEN LIVINGSTONE.

DESPITE a media frenzy of misrepresentation fuelled by the Tories, polling this week confirmed that only 17 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds interpreted Jeremy Corbyn’s comments to “deal with” historic student debt as promising a full write-off.

Do the tabloid journalists and Tory MPs who over the last few weeks have been again and again stoking an argument about student debt — and are desperately, even now, trying to keep the row going — care in the slightest about student debt and spiralling tuition fees?

The answer of course is no. Their hypocrisy knows no bounds, especially as Corbyn is the only leader of the major parties who stands unequivocally for free education, and despite recent media rumours of divisions on the issue, the Tories have made no commitment to even keep tuition fee rises and student debt levels under control.

We should be clear that in stark contrast to Theresa May’s Tories, Jeremy can be 100 per cent trusted on this issue and has an outstanding record.

Myself, Tony Benn and Jeremy 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 New 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, and many of those who have attacked Jeremy in recent weeks in the political elite fall into the same category.

Last year’s further rise in tuition fees from the Tories showed how the principled position of arguing for investment in free education has been proven correct time and again, and these rises came at time when England has become one of the most expensive places to study in the world — students are graduating with an average debt of over £50,000.

Indeed, Andrew Adonis (who was director of the No 10 policy unit under Blair) recently analysed how the situation has got so far out of control, writing: “How did we get from the idea of a reasonable contribution to the cost of university tuition — the principle of the Blair reform of 2004, for which I was largely responsible — to today’s Frankenstein’s monster of £50,000-plus debts for graduates on modest salaries who can’t remotely afford to pay back these sums while starting families?”

While there has been much discussion, and rightly so, about the effect of crippling levels of student debt on individuals, too often missing from the debate over tuition fees over the last 19 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 we 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… 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 in recent years — proving that free education is possible.

And of course, if the government genuinely clamped down on tax avoidance, or made the 1 per cent pay their fair share, billions of pounds would be made available to fund free education and other vital public services such as the NHS.

The scale of the Tories’ tax giveaways for the years ahead is massive.

According to Treasury and Office for Budget Responsibility figures, they will cost the Exchequer £65 billion over the four years from 2018-19 to 2021-22.

Jeremy Corbyn and Labour are quite right to insist these resources should instead be used to invest in Britain’s future.

We mustn’t let the Tories and their media mogul mates distract us from the key issues in the months ahead as they throw every smear and misrepresentation in our direction in a bid to keep Labour out of power, including in this area.

Let’s be 100 per cent clear: only Labour and Jeremy Corbyn in government will invest in our future — including investing in free education to benefit our economy and society.

First published by the Morning Star