Back in late 2010, in the early days of that extremely cold winter, I threw on a hat and scarf and took to the streets of London with thousands of others to protest against the hike in tuition fees. As the snow started to fall, there was a sense among the crowd – a slightly self-aggrandising sense, I admit – that we weren't just protesting against tuition fees (which were set to rise from £3,000 to £9,000 a year) but that we were a sort of bedraggled vanguard holding back the tide of the Coalition's sweeping austerity programme.
This was after all a mere six months after Labour's crushing defeat at the General Election – and a month after George Osborne's first 'emergency budget'. There was a widespread feeling that, alongside swingeing cuts to public services, higher tuition fees were yet another Tory plot to put the boot into the poor.
As it happens, six years later I still think that austerity is a way of making poor people pay for the negligence and improvidence of the well-off. We were also, I believe, right back in 2010 to think in our heterogeneous and misdirected way that austerity would damage the British economy. For two long years after those protests the British economy flatlined. There were two wasted years in which people faced real hardships as a consequence of a bull-headed commitment on the part of George Osborne to roll back the state at breakneck speed.
But we were wrong about university tuition fees. Our anger may have been well intentioned but it was misdirected. The introduction of higher fees by the coalition government did not put poorer kids off going to university as many of us had shrilly predicted. There were many grim and regrettable consequences of the coalition's time in office – a massive rise in homelessness, the soaring use of food banks, the deterioration of the NHS – but education did not, as many such as the journalist Laurie Penny predicted, turn into something that was 'reserved for the rich'.
Which is why it is so frustrating to see the Labour Party talking today about abolishing tuition fees altogether in the name of 'free' education. The reason for the use of quote marks here should be obvious. Like unicorns and hobgoblins, there is no such thing as free education. Someone somewhere along the line has to pay for it. The more pertinent question to ask is who pays and whether or not it is fair to ask them to pay.
Apart from one solitary cousin, I am the only member of my family to go to university. My sister is a stay-at-home mum, one of my brother's is an odd-job man and the other has, after almost 10 years, managed to work his way into a fairly respectable position in a high street bank.
There are massive inequities in the university system – a shockingly low number of poorer students attend the elite institutions - but these problems are not effectively addressed by asking my siblings and those like them to pick up the tab for middle class people – and it is still overwhelmingly middle class people – to go off to university. Especially when graduates can expect to earn up to £100,000 more over a working lifetime than non-graduates.
Like unicorns and hobgoblins, there is no such thing as free education. Someone somewhere along the line has to pay for it.
Go beyond the rhetoric about 'free' education (which I have been as guilty of deploying as anyone else) and look for a second at how tuition fees are working in practice. The most important thing to note is that they haven't stopped poorer kids going to university.
Applications from poor students hit a record high last year. The most recent UCAS figures show that a record number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university and college. Those from the most disadvantaged areas are 65% more likely to go on to higher education than they were a decade ago. Meanwhile, despite offering ostensibly free tuition, Scottish universities are the worst in the UK for admitting poorer students.
The rhetoric around poorer students being saddled with mountains of debt upon leaving university also rests on a flimsy premise. Those who leave university and end up in low-paying jobs will never have to pay their student loans back in full. Tuition fees redistribute wealth from rich to poor. Graduates only have to repay nine percent of their earnings over £21,000; and because debts are written off after 30 years, those earning less will still have their education heavily subsidised by the state.
A record number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university and college...Despite offering ostensibly free tuition, Scottish universities are the worst in the UK for admitting poorer students.
Meanwhile, those gilded students who waltz out of Oxford and Cambridge into high-flying jobs will be hit in the pocket for the full whack – as they ought to be. It is a system of repayment by results. Any cut in fees would simply hand a cheque to high earners who are currently contributing to the price of their education – and would cost the state a fortune in the process. In practice, tuition fees are working a lot like the old Liberal Democrat proposal of a graduate tax – if you earn more you pay more – which was once lauded by progressives before Nick Clegg fell out of favour as a consequence of the coalition's higher education policy.
Jeremy Corbyn's plan to create a National Education Service – which could provide the opportunities for everyone to learn and train throughout their life – is an ambitious and welcome return to the idea that education is an ongoing process, not something which should come to a grinding halt in your mid-teens or early 20s. The plan to reintroduce student maintenance grants for poorer pupils is equally agreeable – you shouldn't be saddled with a bigger debt burden at the end of university simply because your parents happen to be poor.
However, the romantic penumbra that continues to surround the mantra of 'free' education sums up a good deal that is wrong with the current state of the Labour Party: too often good intentions exist alongside a stubborn intransigence in the face of overwhelming evidence. Tuition fees do not hurt the poor, and there will be far better things for a Labour government to spend taxpayers' money on than scrapping them.