Between increasing tuition fees, highly flammable university halls and "epidemic levels" of sexual misconduct and harassment, there's never been a worse time to be a student. Before Tony Blair introduced fees in 1997 and the coalition government tripled them in 2010, you at least didn't have to pay almost £30,000 for the privilege of being molested by a lecturer or watching all your belongings be burned to a crisp.
Traditionally, the Labour Party has scooped up the majority of student votes during elections. Though support has waned between 2017 and now, it still commands the biggest section of the vote among full-time undergraduates, according to non-partisan university think-tank HEPI.
Let's break down the various party manifesto promises for university students. Bear in mind that these only apply to England – tuition fees and education are devolved matters in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
The Tories have promised to look into the "thoughtful recommendations" of the Augar Review, an independent government review into education and funding for those past the age of 18. One of those was that higher earners should pay more interest on their student loans – so a banker would end up paying more than, say, a nurse. They’ll also look at the interest rates on student loan repayments. As with the Augar recommendations, there's no commitment to any of this – just a pledge to "consider [the suggestions] carefully".
There is, however, a commitment to "strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities" – whatever that means! This mirrors a Brexit Party manifesto pledge to "require universities to incorporate an obligation to protect legal free speech". The Tory manifesto doesn't mention how it would enforce this, but former education minister Jo Johnson mooted the idea of fining or suspending universities. Lovely.
All three parties are focusing on lifelong learning this election, with the Tories chucking £3 billion at a National Skills Fund to help people with no qualifications and those who wish to retrain or return to work. They’re also promising to pour £2 billion into improving further education colleges. Bear in mind, though, that the government also cut funding for adult learning by 45 percent over the last ten years, and funding for further education and sixth form has been the most squeezed out of all stages of education.
So where is the money coming from? The majority will come from their decision not to cut corporation tax – which companies pay on their profits. The second biggest earner will come from increasing and expanding their health immigration surcharge, which will oblige both EEA (European Economic Area) and non-EEA nationals to pay £625 to access the NHS.
Labour's education promises are far more wide-ranging than the Tories', with the promise to "end the failed free-market experiment" and a promise to scrap tuition fees as its higher education cornerstone. It would also bring back maintenance grants to financially support those who can’t afford higher education. This isn’t too dissimilar to the Greens' promise to get rid of fees and write off the existing debt for students who went to uni under the old regime.
The Labour Party has also said they would end the casualisation of work in higher education – a crisis that has prompted thousands of university teaching staff to go on strike this week over pay cuts and insecure contracts and pensions. Notably, it’s the only one of the three parties to have acknowledged the issue in their manifesto.
Labour is also looking to create a National Education Service to revamp the whole sector and ensure cradle-to-grave access to education – think the National Health Service, but for learning stuff. Everyone gets the chance to learn new skills or retrain for free, regardless of age or prior qualifications; in some cases, they’re promising up to six years of free training. This includes giving workers the right to accrue paid time off for training and education.
There’s a funky blend of both its climate agenda and educational priorities in the form of training for green jobs under the Climate Apprenticeship programme – which will have bursaries for women, BAME people, care leavers, ex-armed forces personnel and people with disabilities.
They’re also promising to fund mandatory LGBT+ inclusive relationships and sex education in schools. There's not a whiff of this in the Tory manifesto.
Unlike the Tories, Labour aren’t rinsing your first-generation immigrant auntie to fund this. They’re planning to raise corporation tax substantially, as well as taxes for those earning above £80,000 (the top highest-earning 3 percent, contrary to what some Question Time audience members think).
Like Labour, the Lib Dems have much bigger ambitions than the Tories, beginning with an extra £1 billion in further education funding. They’re also promising more funding on an individual level for young people from poorer backgrounds, beginning with a Young People's Premium for 16 to 18-year-olds and reintroducing maintenance grants for university students.
Then again, they’ve also stopped way short of abolishing tuition fees – which makes sense, as they’re in the tricky position of having voted to triple them back in 2010. Instead, they’ve merely committed to a review into higher education finance.
The Lib Dems also want to introduce a requirement for universities to make mental health services accessible to students, as well as getting them to sign up to a Student Mental Health Charter. There’s no further detail on this, but it is worth noting – just maybe! – that one reason for students' mental health suffering is the idea of graduating into almost £30,000 worth of debt?
There’s also the much-mocked Skills Wallet proposal, which would give people £10,000 to spend on approved education and training courses. The party has also committed to include teaching on consent and LGBT+ relationships as part of RSE classes.
They’re planning to fund all this primarily through a £50 billion "Remain Bonus" – this number is based off the estimated amount we’d save by remaining in the EU. It’s worth pointing out that this figure is: a) very much up for debate, and b) even if it did exist, it would technically apply to any government that managed to keep us in the EU. They’re also planning to reverse Tory cuts to corporation tax to 20 percent, just behind Labour’s promise to increase it to 21 percent.
Depending on how much you enjoy taxing the rich, you’d likely find stuff to be pleased with in the offerings from Labour and the Lib Dems. If you hate foreigners but love taking their money for healthcare, vote for the Tories.
Confused about which party to vote for in the upcoming general election? Check out VICE's handy primer to all the manifesto policies here.