Labour faces a “big debate” on its tuition fees policy over the coming months and it will be “tough” for the party to announce anything on it before the chancellor’s Autumn Statement in December, according to Liam Byrne.
The shadow universities, science and skills minister, speaking at the Labour Party Conference, also criticised his government counterpart, Greg Clark, whom he described as “delusional” after a recent speech that “had nothing to say”.
At one point earlier this year, Labour had planned to unveil an election pledge to lower fees to £6,000 - a move the party believes will cost about £2 billion a year - during the conference speech by leader Ed Miliband on 23 September.
However, as Times Higher Education went to press before the speech, it appeared that Labour had dropped the idea of an announcement, with messages from Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, about spending restraint dominating the event’s early stages.
At the conference on 22 September, Mr Byrne told a fringe meeting hosted by Million+ and the National Union of Students that Mr Balls’ speech had made clear that “we are not going to make promises that we cannot afford, and we are not going to make promises that we cannot keep”.
Stating that Labour did want to lower the cost of tuition, he said that if “that’s what’s done” it would promise to “make good” any resulting falls in income for universities.
“We cannot do this on the cheap. But until we are clear enough about how that kind of change will be paid for, it’s not an offer we are going to put on the table,” Mr Byrne said.
“Of course we want to make these changes. But we will not lead people up the garden path. We will be clear and honest, and we will only make promises that we can keep. This is a big debate for us over the next few months.”
Mr Byrne went on to say that the student vote would be “critical” for Labour at the next election. He was asked by Paul Waugh, the editor of the PoliticsHome website and chair of the event: “How are you going to…enthuse them [students] if you don’t have an offer to give them yet?”
Mr Byrne replied that Labour’s policy would be “in the manifesto”, but “obviously my goal is to set it out as early as we can before then”.
He noted that borrowing is now higher than the coalition government had planned - something that was likely to affect Labour’s spending plans. “Every time you see an Autumn Statement, the numbers change. What we have to do is work on the latest set of numbers,” Mr Byrne said.
Pressed on whether Labour might announce its fees policy after the Autumn Statement, which is scheduled for 3 December, Mr Byrne said: “It’s going to be tough to do it before then.”
The shadow minister also told the event that Mr Clark is “no David Willetts”. He said that Mr Clark’s recent speech at the Universities UK conference was “profoundly depressing”: “On issue after issue, he basically told us the status quo is fine. That, I’m afraid, is delusional.”