A former Labour minister has told the party that its policy to lower fees will not win votes.
Bill Rammell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, criticised the policy at a fringe meeting during the Labour conference in Brighton this week.
At its 2011 conference, the party unveiled a holding policy to lower fees to £6,000 if it were in power at that time. It may consider committing to the policy at the next general election or opt to review higher education funding after the poll – which would mean accepting £9,000 fees in the short term.
It is thought unlikely that Labour will shift policy to a graduate tax before the 2015 election.
With student numbers bouncing back under higher fees, some question whether cutting fees, a potentially costly alternative, would win enough votes to make the gamble worthwhile.
Speaking from the audience at the fringe event, hosted by Million+ and the National Union of Students on 23 September, Mr Rammell said: “I cannot conceive that in the limited fiscal room for manoeuvre the party will have after the next general election that [£6,000 fees] would politically be the right priority.”
Mr Rammell, who was Labour’s higher education minister between 2005 and 2008, added: “And bluntly, this issue does not shift votes on the doorstep in anything like a sizeable number of parliamentary constituencies…given the need to properly fund our higher education system, I think the party needs to get itself into a better position.”
Times Higher Education asked Mr Rammell after the meeting if he believed it would be best for Labour to accept £9,000 fees.
“In the short term, I think yes. I don’t think there is evidence that [higher fees] have put students off,” he replied.
But he added that the current system was “unsustainable”, with one solution involving raising the “level of interest rate” on student loans.
However, Mr Rammell was challenged by Paul Blomfield, Labour MP for Sheffield Central and a panel member at the event. He told him that because of the “huge noise” Labour made in opposing the coalition’s fee rise, “we have got to have an intelligent and different narrative to offer…at the next election”.
Mr Blomfield said his favoured graduate tax could be implemented on a “cost-neutral” basis. He added, jokingly: “All it needs is a change in Treasury accountancy rules.”
Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s shadow higher education minister, was absent from the panel after injuring her leg falling down some stairs. Her replacement, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, read her speech. On Labour’s policy for 2015 and beyond, he said in the speech that “we haven’t yet made our decision”.
He added that “an announcement was made some time ago that had we been in power we would lower fees to £6,000 and maintain funding levels for universities. That’s the starting point and we should keep that in mind.”