Any vice-chancellors who attacked a Labour £6,000 fees policy would be on the “wrong side of public opinion” and invite criticism of their high salaries, Liam Byrne has warned.
And in light of Conservative policy to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, Labour’s shadow universities, science and skills minister has also urged universities to be more vocal in making the argument that leaving the union would be a “disaster for British universities”.
The latest suggestion on Labour’s plan to lower fees to £6,000 is that the policy has been blocked by Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, over its projected £2 billion annual cost. However, it is thought that it could be resurrected next year before the election if opinion polls are close and the party needs a boost.
Speaking to Times Higher Education during the recent Labour conference, Mr Byrne said that the party was “ambitious for tuition fees to be lower in the years to come, but we’re also determined not to short-change the sector. Therefore we’re not going to announce anything on tuition fees until we are in a position to be crystal clear about where the money is going to come from.
“We’re obviously expecting new figures [on spending] in the [Treasury’s] Autumn Statement,” he added.
On the question of what exactly is holding up the policy, Mr Byrne said: “The chief issue right now is the wholesale confusion about what money is in the budget today for the future of universities.” Vince Cable, the business secretary, had contributed to the uncertainty by calling off the sale of pre-2012 income-contingent student loans, he argued.
When asked if Labour would go ahead with the sale of student loans, Mr Byrne replied: “When I was chief secretary [to the Treasury] I was among those pressuring BIS [the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] to sell the student loan book…I think if you can deliver guarantees to students about certainty and predictability of their repayments, then it’s a good idea.”
If Labour did go ahead with £6,000 fees, would it not be shot down by those Russell Group vice-chancellors who advocate higher fees?
“Vice-chancellors are some of the most sophisticated players in the public policy debate,” said Mr Byrne. “And they know the wisdom of not being on the wrong side of the public on this question. They know the pay settlements they have agreed with staff compared with others in the public sector; they know what’s happened to their own pay compared with others in the public sector; and they know how pressured students and their families now feel…”
Meanwhile, the shadow minister said that Greg Clark, the universities minister, had “failed to talk about the threat of pulling out of the EU to our universities”, highlighting the “huge shares of European research budgets” won by UK institutions.
He added: “If Britain, god help us, leaves the EU, then it will be a disaster for British universities…I hope that universities will say more about the threat of us leaving Europe to the future of their institutions and the economy we are trying to build in this country.”