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

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.

23 thoughts on “On why I disagree with universal free lunches and scrapping university fees

  1. The implicit assumption here, I believe, is that the national economy is analogous to a business. Taxation is the income and government spending is the expenditure. It follows that the shortfall must be made up by borrowing. The corollary is that is that government spending is limited by revenues and part of governance is making choices about what we spend our money on. That it needs to be done efficiently and utilitarian choices need to be made about what we spend it on.

    However, this is not how the economy works. First governments have to spend to introduce money into the economy. They create currency in doing so. Taxation is the means by which the government extracts currency from the economy (tax also creates a demand for the currency and can be used for redistributive purposes). At the moment we have a regressive taxation system which means that while many people have no savings or debts big coroporations and banks have considerable accumulations. These end up in banks reserves. In order to maintain interest rates, then the government must create bonds to remove that excess currency from the banks. This is what the national debt is – a consequence of a regressive system and not excessive spending.

    A government generally runs in deficit to try and maintain surplus in the private sector. Austerity (deficit reduction) reduces private sector savings and increases private debt. This also limits growth (except through consumer spending funded by private debt). There simply isn’t sufficient money being spent by the government and what it does spend ends up with those who are already wealthy. We need to increase government spending so that there is more money in the economy, make sure taxation is progressive and regulate the financial sector.

    The conditions we are in are deflationary (low demand) people don’t have money to spend. We have surplus capacity for production and services and low productivity. People are underemployed. Government spending would increase demand and facilitate growth. If that spending goes into the pockets of the 90% it is likely that it will be spent in the economy rather than accumulated. Spending on green energy, health, education, research and development would all stimulate positive and socially just growth.

    Labour’s policy proposals are all effectively economic. But they are presented in terms that the majority of the electorate – who believe the economy is like a household – can relate to. First, VAT on independent school fees is simply a progressive tax. Paying for free school meals is putting money into the 90% which has a social as well as economic benefit. Fully funding school is an economic benefit. Making higher education free is also a way of both investing in the future of the economy, reducing private debt but also is a direct input into the economy.

    When you look at these policies in this way they are strategic and coherent. This is more than just cult worship or religion. We have since the mid-1970s abandoned Keynsian economics and the consequence has been growing inequality, democratic deficit and increasing unrest. It is time to address this. The problem is there are so many who have vested interests in the status quo.

    Now, I don’t expect SW or you to become pro-Corbyn, but I would like to see the analysis of education policy done from a more critical stance. One that examines decisions from the perspective of political economy. I think it is the latter that may be causing some of your following some frustration.

    Lastly an apology I quoted your tweet about UFSM with WTF! It was rude and aggressive. I am sorry if you found it abusive or intimidating.

    1. So, I am with you that there is a value in investing. We don’t have to come at this from a “we can only spend what we raise” perspective. On free meals, however, Corbyn did it that way. He said: here’s a billion wuid, i am spending it on x. And my point is that I think it’s a poor return. We could plough that money into families in many other ways which I think would be better and more efficient and more aligned with Corbyn values. In fact, when I pointed out that a major beneficiary would be catering companies – who sometimes take the 2 quid for the meal, but provide one worth 1 pound in return – I was lambasted. But it’s important as I don’t think that does a good job of getting cash back into the economy if it goes to catering shareholders.

      University tuition also doesn’t seem the best investment strategy. The half of people who don’t go to university seem to be a much better place to put that investment. As do mature students.

      It’s not that I don’t understand the political economy. Or even attend to it in my arguments. It’s that I hold a third way view.

      Appreciate the thought on tweets. It’s more the personal ones that got me. But all of us thinking about how we come across on occasion is a good thing.

      1. Thank you for the reply. In terms of political economy, I am not really sure what you mean by ‘third way’. Since the WWII the UK has gone through a Keynesian phase 1945-1975 a neoliberal phase from 1975-2008 (GFC). We are now in a post-capitalism phase where austerity is being used to prolong (rather ineffectively) a neoliberal approach. The Labour Party under Corbyn is proposing policy that is a clear break from neoliberalism, based on the aspects I suggested: fiscal spending and investment, progressive taxation and more stringent regulation of finance and banking. Where would a third way sit within this framing of political economy?

    2. SW ; may I commend your cogent reply ( as one would expect from a logical mathematician )

      I would add the following *fact* ( not hot air and prejudiced hyperbole ) to support an actual situation where ethical policies have succeeded ( Cuba ) – as follows :

      – Despite the efforts of the mightiest nation on Earth’s attempts to invade Cuba, to destroy their revolution with sanctions and even assassinate Fidel many times he was able to ridicule and laugh at them for over 5 decades.
      >>>His poverty stricken 3rd world country managed to provide better #healthcare completely free to everyone, and better education, free to all from infancy through to university, better infant mortality rates and so much more than the world’s richest country America.<<<
      Cuba exported healthcare throughout Latin America and Africa, 325, 710 Cuban health workers have worked in 158 countries since 19 69. And they also gave military aid to the ANC in their revolutionary struggle. <<<


      So one does not have to disparage by phrases such as "clever economic theory "… just use you eyes and ears to take on unassailable facts about recent history.

  2. Laura, this is very thoughtful and excellently argued. I find your tweets thoughtful, informative and helpful challenging. Don’t let the (ahem) get you down. Jon

  3. Thank you, Laura. Well thought out and well argued. As someone who followed you from when you were in the States tweeting ed sel committee stuff (& thanks for the hashtag) I’ve always found your coverage fair to all.

  4. Totally agree with this on both policies. I’ve always struggled with the anti tution fee lobby because the evidence shows it works; over a life time it’s probably a bargain. Just call it a tax. Bingo. Nobody ever campaigns for a specific better alternative.

    With USFM, modern payment methods mean that nobody has to knowwho has free meals anyway – and I like idea of raising FSM income threshold so more people who need them get them. Next wonky Labour policy is return to LAs – pointless reversal at a time when we need more stability. Unless their role is massively revised.

    I don’t understand why you’re getting grief for tone of tweets – I just can’t see anything wrong; without a bit of personality and edge it can all get rather bland. I think the Labour leadership needs as strong a challenge as can be mustered. Unrealistic, unwise policy statements don’t help anyone.

  5. The policy of universal free school meals is ridiculous. The government gives our local authority money so I don’t have to pay for a school meal I can well afford. On the other hand, our local authority is so stretched they are constantly cutting the budget for additional support, which our daughter needs but which there is no system which allows us to pay for it. She gets her free plate of turkey twizzlers but misses out on the full benefit of her education because if a lack of assistants to help her fully join in. It is a bloody ridiculous situation which, I try to ease a little, by donating the school meal money back to the school. They need it more than I do.

    The free school meal system does need to widen to take in the “just managing” families who often don’t qualify, but it certainly doesn’t need to include me.

    Scotland also provides free university education. Another ridiculous freebie that many don’t need. But it is also worth noting the 9k fees still shouldn’t put students off because only those who graduate on a well above average salary will ever pay off the loan, whether the fees are 3, 6 or 9k.

    1. ( am I in a time-warp? — are we back in Victorian times and attitudes ?) I should wake soon hopefully!
      “many don’t need ” … ah the many serfs.. we don’t mention them..

      1. No, the many children of very wealthy people. They don’t need free education, they can afford to pay for it.

        Primary and secondary education is a right, tertiary education is not. And why would we only pay for the post high school education for those who are academic, and not those who are more hands on? Want a useless degree in Fine Art that you will never use? Sure, taxpayer will pay. Want to further your education with on the job training courses as a nursery assistant, or a plumber, or a mechanic – ahh your employer has to foot the bill for that. This sends the message that only academically minded children are worth investing in and that’s a far more Victorian attitude.

        1. “Want a useless degree in Fine Art” — if I may be bold enough( and probably over-harsh) to say: that phrase speaks volumes – on a certain mind-set… on the purpose and place of human society on our Earth .

          Any valuable talent – vocational or cultural or science based – should be supported by the whole of society ( which it benefits ) — To take the opposite argument to an extreme ( to illustrate a point ) – : Would society want the astronauts who went to the moon to fund themselves ?

          I take on your explanations . Generally speaking it is easier for persons to be persuaded, if historical facts or demographic data is presented in support, of a point of view .
          I personally respect all points of view – as they all increase our understanding of who are and the direction society is going.

          1. Fine arts was simply an example of a non vocational degree, generally taken by those who want to go to university for the experience, rather than because they wish to find a career path – because they don’t need one because their family’s money and business connections mean they are set for life. I could have picked any number of degrees which generally serve that purpose. To give a prime example, free university for all means that Prince William’s 2.1 geography degree would have been funded by the taxpayer. So, the family down the road, struggling to put food on the table, are paying tax for him to go to St Andrews and have a jolly for four years, whilst their children, who have few advantages in life are far less likely to go. Is it really too much to ask that we spend the 36k the Prince’s degree cost on trying to give those children more advantage before they get to university?

  6. Am I the only one to find Steven Watson’s comments absurd? What does “governments have to spend to introduce money into the economy.” mean? Governments can only recycle money that is in the economy unless they print money and devalue money that individuals and corporations hold. This smacks to me of the kind of ‘clever’ economic thinking that is separating us all from reality.

    Excellent post Laura.

    1. I think he’s referring to Modern Monetary Theory, or at least one version of it. Under this analysis Govts/Banks create money which needs Taxation to claw back a proportion to prevent inflation.

    2. Money in a national economy is created by the state and enters the economy through public spending. The only way this currency enter the economy is by crediting the accounts of the NHS, local government, schools, or individuals in the case of welfare etc. A currency has value because we have to pay tax in that currency. Tax is the means by which the state can remove currency from the economy. The following short video illustrates the model more clearly I think. https://youtu.be/bTZGU9s0idM. These ideas are pretty much everyday knowledge to folks in banking or financing.

    3. “Am I the only one to find Steven Watson’s comments absurd?”
      — probably!?

      What does “governments have to spend to introduce money into the economy.” mean? ”

      November 2016>
       Professor Phil Lawn 7 March 2015  – economics for dummies <<< emphasis on last word

      "Governments can only recycle money that is in the economy unless they print money and devalue money that individuals and corporations hold. This smacks to me of the kind of ‘clever’ economic thinking that is separating us all from reality."

      You are replying to SW who is a Cambridge University lecturer in Mathematics !! tut tut

      kind regards

    4. “unless they print money and devalue money that individuals and corporations hold” – fiscal easing is universally adopted ( I assume you live on planet earth ?) … Because the income of the population is taxed.. there is no devaluation . again I refer you to the links at the end of CORBYN4.LEADER.BLOGSPOT.COM thanks for your kind indulgence

  7. Hi Laura thanks for sharing your thoughts on these 2 issues. I have always been a supporter of free school meals in principle but in my personal response to the original school food review under MG I advised making those who can afford it volunteer to pay. Problem is the mechanism and the way school kitchens are resourced to handle the new capacity. On tuition fees with a teenager about to face them soon my personal view is that yes they should contribute and the current loan system seems the fairest approach, but I worry that there are perverse incentives for different subjects and sectors to take advantage of the market which is why the link with TEF has to be very careful thought out.

  8. I thought your tweet was on point and I agreed! You are always thoughtful about these things and I love reading your perspectives. I agree – no need to feed and support people who can and are willing to do so (I say this as a parent of two primary age children and a senior leader in a primary school) This money could be used in so many more effective ways. Thank you for writing on this.

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