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Ben Howlett: Miliband has nothing credible to offer students

Ben Howlett is the National Chairman of Conservative Future

Screen shot 2011-09-26 at 18.34.52 Ed Miliband’s flagship announcement this weekend on tuition fees has already collapsed in confusion. It is yet another demonstration of Ed Miliband’s weakness as Labour leader.

As David Willetts has said, this is a monumental u-turn. Since June last year, Ed Milliband has been promising to replace tuition fees with a graduate tax. Last June, he said a "graduate tax would replace upfront tuition fees...I want to consult widely before publishing detailed plans later this year". In September, he said he opposed "higher and higher tuition fees, which lead to higher and higher debts for people". And as recently as July this year he was still promising a graduate tax, telling Birmingham Mail readers: "I would like a system of graduate tax which is more related to ability to pay and also how much comes in from Government and the individual".

But now he decides he is in favour of doubling tuition fees from the level Labour left behind. In doing so, he has overturned one of the only concrete policies he had and conceded that the principles lying behind the Coalition’s policies were right all along.

 The confusion doesn’t stop there. Alarm bells first rang when the Observer reported that Ed Miliband’s aides "stopped short" of promising to put his £6,000 fees policy in the next Labour manifesto. One shadow minister even said the policy should be seen as a "symbol" rather than a firm commitment. Then John Denham, responsible for the policy as Shadow Business Secretary, told the BBC Ed Miliband’s proposal was only an "interim position" and that, bizarrely, Labour’s policy is still to "move towards a graduate tax". Labour members attending conference must be scratching their heads wondering what Labour’s higher education policy actually is.

Whether a £6,000 tuition fee cap is official Labour policy or not, it does not take long to realise their sums simply don’t add up. They say they will partly fund their policy by taxing the banks more. Yet we know that they have already made over £27 billion of spending commitments, such as cutting VAT and keeping child benefit for higher rate taxpayers, all supposedly funded by taxing the banks more. This is about ten times more than their proposed changes to bank taxes would actually raise.

Students should not be taken in by Labour’s posturing. A closer look at their "tuition fee cut" shows that, in fact, they are not proposing to reduce graduates’ monthly contributions at all. This means that their proposals would make absolutely no difference to lower earning graduates, most of whom will never pay the full nominal value of their "debt" regardless of whether the fee is £6,000 or £9,000. These students will continue to pay 9 per cent of their earnings over £21,000 until they reach the thirty-year cut-off point. It is only high earning graduates who will benefit – they will simply pay off their contribution sooner than they otherwise would. So in practice, Miliband’s £1 billion tuition fee policy delivers a massive tax cut to well-off graduates while doing nothing to help the poorest.

Weak leadership, confusion, sums that don’t add up, and a tax break for the rich – this is the truth about Ed Miliband’s flagship announcement. Students deserve better. They want to benefit from a well-funded and world-class university sector and it is now clearer than ever that Labour have nothing credible to offer them.



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