On why I disagree with universal free lunches and scrapping university fees

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Over the past week or so I’ve disappointed a lot of people. I know this, because they’ve tweeted to tell me.
The problem was that Labour announced two policies, and I have issues with both.
The policies are:

  1. Free school lunches for all 7 to 11 year olds, and
  2. Free university tuition for undergraduates (maybe even graduates)

Both sound amazing. Who doesn’t want a world where we feed children and educate everyone? Sign me up!
BUT, the introduction of both largely amount to one thing: giving something for free to people who, by and large, are already able to afford the service.
The twitter critics disagree. They say I’m missing the point because the policy is about giving everyone free access to something. But in both cases we already have targeted support for families most in need. Hence, in both cases, the addition of making it free for all is, literally, about giving it to more people – most of whom are already able to afford it.
If the policy was “help more people who can’t afford to do something” then my reaction would be different. But so far, that’s not what is being proposed.

A word on socialism

One of the things people have spent time telling me, at length, on twitter is that the principle of universalism is a good thing, in and of itself. They are right. I get it. If you’re asking me where I would like to get to in the end, a place where everyone has equal access to food and education is great.
But that’s not what Corbyn is offering me. Because this isn’t a religion. It’s politics. This isn’t about what I want from Nirvana but what I think someone who holds power from 2020 to 2025 (probably before) ought to do with their time in power.
And me, well, you may not believe it but, largely, I sign up the Marxist maxim: ‘From each according to ability, to each according to need”. And if a child is already being provided with a perfectly good meal by their family, then I don’t think they are in need of a £2 plate of sausage and beans. But what I do think is that there are very real and immediate social issues that Labour could instead focus on. Social issues needing pragmatic socialist solutions, which would enable society to start flourishing in precisely the way that the people who are disappointed in me want.
I think we need solutions for homelessness. I think we need to use any available cash raised from taxation to bring back vital services which have been lost – SureStart, children’s trust boards, sexual health services, walk-in centres, in-between homes.
This is where I would begin if I was outlining Labour’s vision for 2020-25. Not with policies which, as I said above, are largely about giving free things to people who already have stuff.
And if you don’t believe that’s what these policies do, let me explain them one by one…

The Problem With Free School Meals for Primary Children

At present, if you are in a family on benefits, free lunches are already covered for your child.
If your child doesn’t get free meals, and you can’t provide food, the likelihood at primary level is that this will be picked up. Primaries are small enough, with enough dinner attendants, that if a child isn’t getting fed, people notice, and this is remedied in a variety of ways. (Sometimes the school pays, sometimes liaison workers work with the kid etc).
But, here’s the really important bit, we know some families aren’t able to feed their children at other times. The thirteen weeks of holiday, plus breakfasts, are particularly difficult.
We might also argue that families just above the benefit line – the ones recently defined as ‘ordinary working families’ – may struggle to pay for the meals. This is particularly the case in the casual labour market where earnings are lumpy for some parents.
These are both real social issues. So, instead of spending £1billion on a policy which includes paying for meals for families earning millions, I would instead start with extending the threshold for free meals upwards and using any leftover cash half-term and breakfast food for struggling families.
But what about ethos? Isn’t it better if everyone sits down together for lunch? If Labour want to do that, (and I think it’s a strong shout), then there’s a solution that doesn’t cost anything much. Just write it into legislation. “Schools must have children sit down together at lunch”. It sounds hideously controlling, but it’s no different than what universal free meals actually involves. It just doesn’t cost a £1billion.
And if you wanted to go further you could do. Some schools already make it a requirement that children eat school food, altogether. Personally, I find this a step too far. But if you’re a fan of everyone being made to eat lunch together, and eat the same food, why not simply require it just like we require parents to kit out their kids in uniform? (Or are the Labour party also going to start paying for uniforms?)

The Problem with Free University Tuition

This is the one where I upset everyone with a tweet which, as someone fairly pointed out, wasn’t one of my best.

And I get why this annoyed people. It’s very un-me. I’m not usually a “but why should I pay for X’ type person. And I used private school kids as a proxy for “ones from wealthy families”, which isn’t entirely fair and has distracted people from the main point.
So, let’s pretend I’d said what I intended to say, which is:
The reason why people don’t like this sort of whataboutery is because it is usually said by someone claiming:
In that case, the reason why I usually say a rich person should pay is because there is a greater cost if we don’t. Hence, there’s a collective benefit to paying for the thing. For example, why should a rich person pay housing benefit to a care leaver? Well, a homeless person has a financial and social cost. If we take from a person who can afford it, and give to the person who can’t, then we stop this cost, without anyone being too badly affected.
My tweet spins that around. It is now a low-income person giving to a person who is (more likely) to be wealthy in order to have a good which is (somewhat likely) to make the wealthy person even wealthier.
Yet, people still use the same argument as above. They say there is a benefit to university education, and we would have problems if we had no, say, doctors or teachers.
Clearly, this is true. University educated people are a social good.
But there are also significant individual benefits of a degree. Graduates are still, ever so slightly, more likely to earn more in their lifetime than non-graduates. They are also, most definitely, given more options in the labour market. They have more autonomy over what job they can do. This is a substantial individual benefit. One worth paying for, in my view.
Furthermore, there’s no sense, at the moment, that the collective benefit collapses if we keep tuition fees. In the case of a rich person paying for a low-income person to have, say, a home, we know that unless this basic need is met the other person cannot provide it for themselves. In the case of degrees, however, that hasn’t happened.
Tuition fees have not (yet) put off the poorest students. Heaven knows how many times I said they would. I really believed it. I marched over it. I wrote articles about it. But – so far, up until the £9k fees, that didn’t happen. Instead, bursaries amped up, fee waivers came in, universities got better at doling out cash, and the poor kids kept going. It’s awkward, I know. But it is what it is.
With the new £9k regime, I suspect this might change. But I’ve said that every time before and always been wrong. So who knows?
Certainly what we can say is that a system where students were paying between £3,000 and £6,000 – so were part-subsidised, part-paying – reflected both the collective benefit to society, but also the graduate premium and individual benefit.
The way repayment works also means that the repayment of fees essentially works as a form of income tax. No one pays until earning above a threshold. (So if you never benefit, you never pay). It is, in essence, a graduate tax, but with an expiry date.
It is the sort of progressive taxation that I always thought Labour were in favour of.
The other beef people had with my tweet and arguments was a belief I was presuming everyone who goes to university comes from a wealthy family. That’s wrong. I know they are not. I am one of those kids. But I’m afraid they are much more likely to go. That’s because universities are selective, so they are a service more often used by children of middle and high income families who hold the grades to get in. This isn’t a conspiracy by me. It’s just true.  If Corbyn wants to change who goes to universities, that’s great. But, as it stands, scrapping fees disproportionately helps young pupil who had the triple advantage of growing up in a family with a decent income, with educated parents and who, by 18, were already smart enough to get a gaggle of decent grades (because, whether you like it or not, that’s who tends to go to university).
Could we change that? Yes. Is Corbyn suggesting that? No. Hence, as it stands, I don’t love the free fees policy.
Now: are there problems with the current university loans system? Yes. You betcha. The interest rises are tantamount to misselling. There are serious issues around the costs of living versus grants and loans available. And don’t get me started on quality, the offers systems, etc. But none of those are solved by making fees free. Which is another reason I find the policy so annoying. There are actual problems out there in higher education land. And yet Labour, so far, is silent on them. If they were talking about making universities set rent-caps, I’d be applauding. If they were talking about how to fund university when you are there – I’d be all ears.
What we also know is that there is an issue with mature students. And this has been a focus for me in my writing – not least this article, where I point out how horrific the numbers are.
We need to think very seriously as a country about how we sustain people in employment until they are (basically) 70. And one way to do that would be funding re-training.
It is all very well for people to harangue me on Twitter and say we can have those things as well. We can have free first degrees, and second ones, and third ones, and free childcare, and free everything. But, these are expensive things and without knowing where the cash will come from, I’m not satisfied that by 2025 we actually can. And it would be awful, really awful, if Labour promise something they cannot deliver. Look what happened to the Lib Dems on this point!
So, what I would like to see the National Education Service become is something like an Individual Learning Account with a fixed amount for everyone, and perhaps a redistributive top-up, which can be spent at any time across life. This could be used to support a first degree, but also later training. It could be used to help support people when they are low-paid apprenticeships (another neglected area by Labour).  These policies haven’t worked well in the past, I know. Both Blair and Brown tried. But we have much better technology to enable it now and I think they are the genuinely egalitarian thing to do. Individual Learning Accounts for all is better than free university fees for some.  
Hence, it isn’t that I have given up on Labour or on education or on the principles of redistribution. It is simply that I think pointing at services which, so far, would largely give a cash transfer to middle and high income families is not the way to solve the ills of today.
Might it be one day? Maybe. But we have to accept where we are now. We have to see today’s issues and solve those. Because if we try and jump to the heavens too quickly, reality will remind us – rather quickly – that clouds are made of water and we will come back to earth with a bump.
Building a ladder to the skies today is a much safer approach, even if less exciting, than promising universalism and free things tomorrow.

A side-note on aggressive tweets

I know my tone has upset people. It wasn’t intended to. But that happens sometimes, especially on twitter. If it did, I regret that. I like engaging in an open and honest conversation, and I hope people see my subsequent tweets have tried to do that. My aim is never to be dismissive.
One thing I don’t agree with, though, is how many people have aggressively suggested over the past day or so that, because I am a journalist, that this means I must never question Corbyn or McDonnell. Or at that I must only ever write very serious tweets.
It would be a very dangerous thing if people insulting me because I’m picking holes in Labour policy actually stopped me doing so. Politicians must always be treated as people who one day might take over every instrument of power in the country and be questioned appropriately. It’s much worse to treat them as if they’re irrelevant or to unthinkingly believe every word.
So, challenge my opinions, sure. Tell me I’m wrong, or missing a point, no problem. But require me to simply stop because you don’t like what I say? That’s not something I can agree to.
Likewise, I won’t stop with my use of satire and sarcasm, even if it’s not to every tweeter’s tastes. Five years ago, when I left the classroom and moved to America, I used to get up in the middle of the night and tweet education select committees attended by Michael Gove. The tweets were part-newsy, part-sarcastic, and they had two functions. One: inform people of what was said. Two, remind the audience that people in power are still just people. That second one is what satire and sarcasm does. Satire is what keeps power grounded. It’s the kid at the parade pointing out the Emperor was naked. It’s Charlie Chaplin pointing out the absurdity of Hitler. It’s the reminder that no one is above humour, no matter how beloved, because – in the end – they are just people operating in the same constraints of every other politician who went before them. And if I think their assumptions or values are wrong, I will say it. And if I think humour can punchly get the point across, I will use it.
No-one has to agree with my politics or even with how I conduct myself.  But please know my opinions and actions are not because I am unthinking, or because I believe in right-wing thinking, or because I’m being glib. They are because I believe the world is better when we ask questions, point out absurdities, make jokes, question fiercely, debate harshly, and – crucially – when we take from each according to ability, and give to each according to need.