Ed Miliband and Labour still see a graduate tax as the right “long-term” policy for university funding despite announcing £6,000 fees as their short-term goal, according to Liam Byrne.
The shadow universities, science and skills minister was speaking alongside Greg Clark, the Conservative universities and science minister, and Lib Dem MP and University of Cambridge academic Julian Huppert at an election hustings event on higher education last night.
The event, held in central London, was hosted by Times Higher Education, Universities UK, the Open University and the Higher Education Policy Institute.
The event was the first clash between the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems since Labour’s unveiling of its pledge to lower fees to £6,000 on February, which looks likely to make higher education a central element of the election campaign.
Mr Clark accused Labour of adopting an “unprogressive” policy that benefitted high-earning graduates, while Mr Huppert said that ultimately he would like fees to be abolished.
Mr Byrne claimed the Tories and Lib Dems had failed to be clear on what fees policies they would adopt. “I don’t think the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives have said definitely that fees will not rise in the next Parliament,” he said.
The Labour shadow minister argued that “the status quo is not an option”, claiming that the £9,000 student loans system would result in £280 billion being added to the national debt by 2030.
He added: “I know that there are many people in the higher education sector who would like the current system to stay. But I have to say to you it would be criminally naïve to ignore the time bomb that’s about to go off.”
Mr Byrne also said: “A number of us are incredibly inspired by those campaigning for free education on campuses up and down the country. But I think we all know from the last election campaign that it isn’t wise to make promises that you can’t keep. That’s why, although we can’t promise free education over the course of the next Parliament, we do think the right long-term shift is to a graduate tax.”
He said Labour had not committed to a graduate tax because “we weren’t sure we could deliver it in the next Parliament”.
Challenged on Mr Miliband’s advocacy of a graduate tax during his leadership campaign, Mr Byrne said: “He still thinks it’s the right long-term answer.”
Mr Clark said on Labour’s fees policy: “I’m sorry that we have ended up with a disagreement…because I do think universities have benefitted from the confidence and stability that’s come from the fees system.”
He said the Institute for Fiscal Studies had said of Labour’s £6,000 policy that it “would benefit the highest earning graduates when they are in their 40s” and “put universities back on the dependence of an annual handout from the Treasury”.
Mr Clark said the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development had praised the English system for having “figured out a sustainable approach to higher education funding…I think we should keep faith with that”.
Mr Huppert said: “The fee cap I would like to see is zero.” He continued that he would want higher education to be fully publicly funded, “but I simply don’t know how to get funding for that, because I would not do so if it meant destroying the quality of education”.
He argued that the question was “if you can’t achieve that, what should you do with the money”. The answer was to “put money towards the cost of living…that is the thing that will get rid of the barriers students actually face”.
Criticising Labour’s £6,000 policy, Mr Huppert said: “The money that is available, I would not use it preferentially to help students who will go on to make lots of money. I would use it to help students at the same time they need it.”
Mr Byrne challenged Mr Huppert: “What will you propose? What will be in the manifesto?”
The Lib Dem MP replied: “You’ll have to wait and see.”
Baroness Lane-Fox, chair of the event and Open University chancellor, asked the audience at the close at the event which of the three politicians had delivered the most effective answers. She judged the resulting audience vote as being a “landslide” for Labour.