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The manifestos: equality, environment, Brexit and the student vote

The number of young people, many of them students, registering to vote has surged as the election approaches. Of 418,000 registering in the last two days, 67% were under 35 years old. Thirty-five per cent were under twenty-five. It is fair to say that this is the most important election for the next generation since 1945. A definitive result will determine the economic fate of UK citizens for generations to come. 

However, the divisions within the UK seem to herald another minority government and escalating conflict. The main parties, except for the Conservatives, released their manifestos earlier this week. The Conservatives waited to make an appearance on a Sunday. But now that it is revealed, a comparison of what to expect for student equality, finance and equality of prospects is possible. However, all of this is overshadowed by the uncertain economy. Brexit and tackling the climate emergency will be the main influences shaping the economy to come and young people will have to pay and expect a say.

The manifestos.

Prior to seeing the manifestos this week, the Higher Education Policy Institute produced a useful guide to the background issues with ‘HEPI Election Briefing: How and why this election matters for students, staff and higher education institutions’. One only hopes that the politics and financial planning reflect the reality of the situation as outlined. Although difficult to assess, the HEPI observation ‘What election manifestoes don’t say about higher education is generally more important than what they do’ earlier this month seems to be correct.

All of the main parties seek to end austerity to varying degrees and, in doing so, increase public spending. They will all have to rely mostly upon more borrowing to take advantage of low-interest rates and/or higher taxation. However, none of this is assured as the uncertainty of Brexit looms. In ‘down grading’ the UK credit rating from ‘stable’ to ‘negative’ (Moody's changes outlook on UK's rating to negative from stable, affirms Aa2 rating) earlier this month, Moody’s issued a stern warning that “departure from the EU without a deal would be strongly negative for the rating”. However, it seems that this reality has not deterred the main contenders from their spending plans.

The Liberal Democrats produced a 94-page manifesto ‘Stop Brexit and Build a Brighter Future’. The financing of their plans was confined to a simple balance sheet ‘Manifesto Costings Summary 2019’ that is no longer linked to their www site since Friday. Much of the income planned over five years is provided by the “£50 billion remain bonus”. However, this was not further specified and must, therefore, remain speculative.

In contrast, Labour has released a much more detailed 105-page manifesto with ‘It’s time for real change’. It is by far the most radical and comprehensive election manifesto of the bunch. There are also two separate documents on finance that give further details. ‘Funding Real Change’ is a document of 44 pages and, for those interested in corporate taxation at the core of Labour’s financial plan, there is the 13-page ‘Labours review of corporate tax reliefs’ to fall asleep to and have nightmares about being the citizen customer who pays in the end.

The 59 page Conservative Party manifesto was launched today as ‘Get Brexit Done: Unleash Britain’s potential’. However, the promise of no tax increases probably reflects the low ambition that led to 'repairing potholes’ becoming a headline objective. The scale of planned investment is around 10% of that of the Labour party. A separate ‘Costings Document’ gives a breakdown of where the money will come from. It is clear that the Conservative’s low ambition is matched by a very cautious approach to finance. Funding for student fees or maintenance does not appear anywhere in the balance sheets. In contrast, £500million per annum will go to repairing potholes from next year until 2024. It is a fine metaphor for ongoing austerity. I doubt that students or recent graduates will be impressed by the omission.

The Brexit party has no manifesto to hand, instead, Farage has produced a small and slim ‘little blue book’ that outlines his thoughts.

The Brexit storm clouds, climate change and the economic consequences.

All of the issues for young people eventually distil down to the ‘economy’ and who can be trusted to manage it. Their economic futures will be dominated by the cost of Brexit and climate change mitigation. The generational divide between increasing numbers of young people who wish to remain in the EU and many of an older generation wanting to leave is widening to dangerous levels. Add the idea that previous generations are responsible for climate change, but will not bear the cost, and there is a toxic environment brewing.

All of the main parties have a plan for dealing with climate change with various deadlines regarding so-called 'carbon neutrality'. However, it becomes apparent that the leading politicians have little idea about the technical details or the evidence put before them. This failure of our leaders to correctly appreciate the danger in a scientific sense is one of the greatest dangers facing us all. This was brilliantly exemplified earlier today by Boris Johnson. In unleashing his manifesto speech he extolled the virtues of electric vehicles with “but thanks to British ingenuity we can make electrons swoosh so efficiently from anode to the cathode, or possibly vice versa, but that’s the right idea.” The legacy of our worsening environmental problems sits right there in that fatuous statement.

Some influencers are stoking the fire of blame by stressing a wealth divide between young and old. Most notable was former Conservative minister, David Willets in his book ‘The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Stole Their Children's Future’ that was revised earlier this year. It represents the irresponsible and reckless danger of taking this approach. It is not as simple or clear as Willets suggests. Nevertheless, it is difficult to get away from the fact that many older people seeking Brexit gained their wealth after we joined the EU in 1973. The irony is that most would have voted to remain in the 1975 referendum. Many young people are becoming angry that a poor Brexit deal will remove many of the chances that older people enjoyed within the EU. They will quickly latch onto the idea that the economy will always be the main electoral issue and Brexit will have the biggest impact upon the fate of our economy in the near future.

The positions of the main parties on Brexit are clear enough. However, there are hidden obstacles lurking beneath the surface. The conservatives think that a comprehensive trade deal with the EU is easily possible by the end of 2020. But the more likely outcome will be a no-deal Brexit as talks stall when they simultaneously try to broker a similar deal with the USA just as the Trump regime is ousted. However, the conservatives have cleverly delayed releasing their manifesto so that they could look at the others first. It is a bit like a student trying to sneak a lead by trying to submit an assignment after the others have been marked and returned with feedback. This is not a legitimate strategy as many students find out to their cost early in their student days.

The Liberal Democrats will unilaterally revoke article 50 and remain in the EU without going back to the people. This stance is gaining ground with many young people as they worry about the uncertain Labour position. But the Liberal Democrats indicate that much of their spending will be financed by £50 billion raised through a ‘remain bonus’. This is not defined clearly and cannot be assured. Add to this the possibility of interest rate rises that would scupper the spending plans of all of the parties.

The Labour party has produced the most radical spending plans whilst sitting on the fence on Brexit. The people will be asked to decide on their new deal or remain. The aim to negotiate a deal whereby we stay in a single market after Brexit will be easier to agree with the EU but will negate a USA deal. Many students may see that remain is a better option and will not be convinced by the Labour position.

Fees and student finance: is this an issue for students?

The problem with the plans of the main parties to reform student finance is that current students will see little benefit in the short term. The most benefit would come to those not eligible to vote yet. However, looking to the future, they might see a time when they struggle to finance the education of their future children. Indeed those who graduated in recent years will be looking more closely at that prospect. Any policy on funding Higher Education must look to that cohort first.

The Conservative manifesto is light on detail and steadfastly avoids student fees, maintenance grants and Higher Education. One can only assume that the status quo will prevail for a long time to come. The Augar report, that advocated lower fees, would seem to have vanished. However, there are dangerous undercurrents that are not addressed. There is a longstanding suspicion of universities by both the Brexit Party and UKIP that will no doubt infiltrate Conservative Party thinking into the future. Restricting student numbers and only supporting STEM and medical students might still come to pass in a diluted form.

In contrast, the Green party manifesto is the most radical with regard to Higher Education. Although with fewer details than Labour, it is similar in that fees would be abolished and maintenance grants reintroduced. The radical suggestion is that they would “Write off existing debt for former students who studied under the £9k tuition fee regime”. The plan to fund this is just as risky and involves “Our commitment to write off student debt from fee loans accumulated under the £9,000 tuition fee regime will add an additional sum onto the national debt.”

Labour has rolled its Higher Education plans into the radical and wider reforms of a ‘National Education Service’ and promises no fees and the reintroduction of maintenance grants. This is projected to cost an additional total of £13.6 billion by 2023/24. However, the universities can expect pressure on their finances to rise despite student numbers remaining high with a “three year freeze from 2020-21 to 2022-23 on per pupil (sic) funding”.

The Liberal Democrats also plan to bring back maintenance grants at a cost of £940 million by 2024/25. But this seems to be an underestimate if widening access and the resulting student numbers are to improve. The issue of fees is ducked at this point and doing this will cost many student and recent graduate votes. Instead they plan to “Establish a review of higher education finance in the next parliament to consider any necessary reforms in the light of the latest evidence of the impact of the existing financing system on access, participation and quality, and make sure there are no more retrospective raising of rates or selling-off of loans to private companies”. There are no costs attached to this aspiration.

It’s the economy surely.

A simple conclusion is that more young people, and in particular students,  will vote this time around. Many will not have digested all of the conflicting permutations on offer. But the pickets around their campuses next week, as a result of eight days of strike action by their lecturers, will sharpen the mind. They will see how their lecturers from another generation are opposing the government’s marketisation reforms as well as the university management response. It will surely affect their decision when voting; although they are caught in the horns of a dilemma. Most are from better-off families. Those students may shy away from Labour when they see the taxation plans that will restrict their benefit from inheritance and capital gains in the future. Yet they will also see the sense of a fairer and more equal education system; even if they may not gain from a retrospective removal of the fee debt. Industrial and social investments linked to mitigating climate change will be seen as positive, but it has to be realistic and effective. The hope is that economic realism will rule over a futile utopian aspiration in the future.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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