David Cameron has claimed the government’s move to scrap student maintenance grants allowed it to uncap student numbers, after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn challenged him on the controversial policy.
The exchange between the two at Prime Minister’s Questions today followed an unsuccessful attempt by Labour yesterday to annul the Statutory Instrument by which the government has passed the measure.
Mr Cameron also referred to a recent Times Higher Education interview with Ed Balls during the exchange, noting that the former shadow chancellor and adviser to Gordon Brown had criticised the Labour government's legacy on tuition fees.
Labour claim the policy to scrap grants was not included in the Conservative election manifesto and should not have been passed via a Statutory Instrument, often used for low-key procedural matters.
The full grant, awarded to students from households with an annual income of under £25,000, is currently £3,387.
Mr Corbyn asked Mr Cameron whereabouts in the Tory manifesto the policy to scrap student maintenance grants – which are to be replaced with loans for new students from 2016-17 – appeared.
Mr Cameron replied that the manifesto had said the Tories would “cut the deficit and uncap student numbers and we’ve done both”.
The policy to scrap student number controls as of 2015-16 was originally announced by George Osborne in the autumn statement of December 2013 – well before the election, held in May 2015.
Asked the same question about where the plan to cut student grants was mentioned in the manifesto, Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, has pointed to page 35 of the manifesto. That includes a reference to ensuring the “continuing success and stability” of higher education policy so the “interests of both students and taxpayers are fairly represented”.
During the Labour leadership campaign, Mr Corbyn said he wanted to scrap fees and reintroduce maintenance grants – a policy he costed at £10 billion a year.
Mr Cameron accused the Labour leader of wanting to return to a time when numbers were capped and university was restricted to “an elite. We’re uncapping aspiration. He wants to put a cap on it.”
Mr Cameron continued that he wanted to "read a lesson from someone, frankly, I rather miss: Mr Ed Balls", from his interview "this week in the Times Higher Education". Mr Balls had told THE that Labour "clearly didn’t find a sustainable way forward for the financing of higher education", the prime minister noted.
Labour yesterday held an opposition day debate on the scrapping of grants. The party’s motion to save grants was defeated by 306 votes to 292. A separate motion to annul the Statutory Instrument was defeated by 303 votes to 292 and on the votes of English MPs only by 291 to 203.
The grants vote was defined as a measure requiring a “double majority” of both UK and English MPs, under English Votes for English Laws rules. However, the move will have a significant impact on spending in Scotland under the Barnett formula.