Theresa May has finally admitted that the Conservatives have got it woefully wrong on education. But, instead of reversing their destructive policies, they have announced a long-winded review.
This seems to be May’s new default position. Under pressure from Labour over their deeply unpopular and damaging policies, the Tories have started announcing reviews, giving the impression they’re taking action without actually changing anything.
The latest one is on education, and it’s a waste of time. We don’t need a review to tell us about the impact of trebling tuition fees, which has saddled students with eye-watering levels of debt of up to £57,000.
As a young single mum struggling to get by, I didn’t get to go to university, but that level of debt would have been unimaginable. And clearly it’s having an impact now – since fees were tripled, the proportion of students from state schools progressing to higher education has dropped significantly.
But debt isn’t just deterring students from attending university, it’s also taking a toll on those who enrol. Studies suggest that debt, combined with the scrapping of maintenance grants, has led to an increase in depression and anxiety among students. No wonder we have seen rising numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds dropping out of their courses, at nearly twice the rate of their most affluent peers.
To make matters worse, the Tories have turned our education system into a market, with universities and colleges being run like businesses. This has resulted in cuts to less-profitable courses, staff losing their jobs and a greater reliance on underpaid PhD students to teach, all of which means many students are paying more money and accruing more debt for a lower-quality educational experience.
Free education is not only the right thing for students, but is also the bedrock of a fairer and more equal society
Labour warned about all of this in 2010 but the Tories forced it through, with the help of the Liberal Democrats, let’s not forget. And May voted for it all: to treble tuition fees, scrap maintenance grants and slash funding for further education colleges. So forgive me for not being taken in by her rhetoric about an “education system that truly works for everyone”. Her words mean nothing.
In reality, her government has put class back into the classroom, creating an increasingly elitist system in which students from underprivileged backgrounds are either pushed to the brink or pushed out altogether.
And I’m struggling to stomach May’s words about enhancing technical education and developing non-academic training. The Conservatives have repeatedly cut funding for further education colleges, the main provider of adult and vocational training in our education, and they slashed the adult skills budget by more than £1bn. As someone who returned to education later in life and experienced the power it has to transform lives, these cuts are unforgivable.
If the Tories are serious about ensuring everyone has the opportunity to learn, regardless of their background, then the only thing they need to review is Labour’s manifesto. We will abolish tuition fees, bring back maintenance grants and provide free, lifelong education in further education colleges. This will form part of our national education service, providing cradle to grave learning, free at the point of use, ensuring every person has the opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills and experience to realise their full potential.
This will be paid for by asking the richest individuals and corporations to pay a bit more in tax, as set out in our fully costed manifesto.
Despite May’s admission that British students face one of the most expensive education systems in the world, she has ruled out the review looking at the abolition of fees. Could this be because she’s afraid of what the review might find? That free education is not only the right thing for students, but also the bedrock of a fairer and more equal society. And that this is entirely affordable if you choose to reverse cuts to corporation tax, rather than reverse opportunities for the next generation.
May appears to have even rowed back on the idea of a small cut in fees for a few courses, just days after the Tories suggested it.
It’s clear that this review will result in nothing more than some tinkering around the edges of a broken, unsustainable system. Only Labour will provide the radical changes needed to create a free, fair and funded education system, which protects education as a right for the many, not a privilege for the few.
• Angela Rayner is shadow education secretary and Labour MP for Ashton-under-Lyne