Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to abolish student tuition fees will have to compete against alternative policies – including a graduate tax – before being approved by his party, according to Labour’s shadow minister for higher education.
Gordon Marsden, who took over Labour’s shadow universities role after Corbyn was elected leader, said “nothing is ruled in, and nothing is ruled out” over the future of tuition fees. A promise to scrap the fees formed a major part of Corbyn’s appeal to young voters during his successful election campaign.
Marsden’s confirmation came after shadow cabinet ministers briefed journalists that Corbyn’s pledge wouldn’t “automatically become policy”.
“Jeremy has stated an objective, and in the 10 days since I have been in the post I have said to anyone who wants to listen, we are entering a process of deep thought and consultation, both with people within the party and all the sectors outside it.”
Labour went into the last election with a promise to scale back undergraduate fees to £6,000 a year in England from the current level of £9,000, set by the coalition government despite the Liberal Democrats having pledged not to raise them.
Corbyn’s promise to scrap tuition fees was his most high-profile policy, cementing his popularity among young activists who voted for him in droves.
“I want to apologise on behalf of the Labour party to the last generation of students for the imposition of fees, top-up fees and the replacement of grants with loans by previous Labour governments. I opposed those changes at the time, as did many others, and now we have an opportunity to change course,” Corbyn said in his first major policy announcement in July.
Corbyn’s advisers then said the cost would be £7bn, while the cost of restoring maintenance grants – another promise – would be £3bn, to be funded by increasing corporation tax and national insurance for those earning more than £50,000.
Marsden said Labour would review all the policy options ahead of the next election – including retaining the party’s previous stance on fees.
“There were several proposals looked at in the previous parliament, the £6,000 fee was part of it, a graduate tax was also discussed, and there is now another element in the equation, which is the whole concept of fees,” Marsden said.
“It would be a good idea if people turned some of their attention to things that are actually happening today that will impact on people negatively, rather than just wondering what an opposition party might put forward in five years’ time.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank and a former special advisor to the Conservative minister David Willetts, said Labour was right to revisit Corbyn’s pledge given the £10bn cost.
“The money would have to come from somewhere and it is likely we would see fewer student places, less spending on research and an even tighter squeeze on further education colleges. The last few elections have also shown that free higher education is not a vote winner,” Hillman said.
“At the Labour party conference, the people I spoke to wanted to reconcile their party to the current funding system and to spend any spare money that might exist on science and further education rather than abolishing tuition fees
“Besides, looking again at the support for part-time students is a much more urgent priority than abolishing fees for full-time students,” said Hillman.
Labour’s previous policy of scaling back fees had faced resistance inside and outside the party, with a high-profile attack against it coming from university vice chancellors before the policy was officially launched.
Tuition fees received only an indirect mention during Corbyn’s speech to the party conference in Brighton on Tuesday, when he accused the government of “putting university graduates into massive debt”.
Marsden said that the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle – whose role oversees higher education – had announced a series of reviews at Labour’s conference.
“We’re in an unofficial policy consultation mode now. If anyone wants to send to Angela or to myself their thoughts from anywhere in the sector they are more than welcome to do so.
“There will be a formal process and that will involve the usual channels, the leader, the NEC and, as it stands at the moment, the national policy forum.”