Jeremy Corbyn is still keen that his goal to scrap tuition fees will become Labour Party policy, but acknowledges that it will take “serious debate within the party to achieve” and that he is “not a dictator”.
The comments from the Labour leader, in an interview with Times Higher Education, are thought to be his first public discussion of his pledge to abolish fees since his election as party leader in September 2015.
Tuition fees have the potential to form another policy battleground where Mr Corbyn, who said that he has discussed a funding model to abolish fees with shadow chancellor John McDonnell, is set to clash with MPs from his own party. Defeated leadership contenders Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper backed a graduate tax, while Liz Kendall in effect endorsed the £9,000 status quo.
However, Mr Corbyn may take encouragement from the fact that making higher education tuition-fee free, or significantly lowering its costs, is on the political agenda internationally.
In the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in the US, Bernie Sanders has pledged to make tuition free at public colleges and universities, while Hillary Clinton has advanced a more cautious plan for “debt free” college education.
Mr Corbyn spoke to THE after his speech at a University and College Union event at the University of London on 6 February.
His pledge to scrap fees and reintroduce student maintenance grants was a keystone of his leadership campaign. So does he still want to see fees scrapped?
“This is what I fought the leadership election on and I won the leadership election with that included in my statement,” Mr Corbyn told THE.
“It does require serious debate and discussion within the party to achieve this. I’ve discussed it with John McDonnell [the shadow chancellor]; we’re discussing the model of the funding required and what’s involved. There will then be a debate within the party and the party will come to a conclusion. My own position is very well known on this.”
So he is hopeful that tuition-fee free higher education will become the Labour position? “Yes,” Mr Corbyn replied, before adding: “But I am not a dictator.”
But there will be some in Labour who do not agree – some who advocate a graduate tax, for example.
“The debate is around [a] graduate tax, the debate is around funding universities, the debate is around the commercialisation of universities. So there’s a huge debate to be had there,” Mr Corbyn said.
He added: “The UCU will obviously be invited to be part of that discussion…Every other union will be invited of course, the party and the general public.
“We are having discussions with vice-chancellors and many other people. We’re not there yet. Gordon Marsden [the shadow higher education, further education and skills minister] is heading the issue up. We’re working on it.”
But the Conservatives would point out that after fees rose to £9,000, student numbers – including the number of disadvantaged students – reached record levels, and would reject the idea that there is any problem needing to be solved.
“The problem is the massive debt levels that students leave university with,” Mr Corbyn replied.
He said that debt “counts on their [graduates’] ability to borrow money for other things, it counts on their ability to take on mortgages, pensions and so on. It seems to me to be an unfair burden that isn’t imposed by other European countries to anything like the same extent, in some cases not at all.”
He added that “we’ve also got to think about the value to our society of getting students qualified”.
Asked about his broader concerns about the marketisation of higher education, Mr Corbyn said that “if the government decided to lift the fee cap from £9,000, to lift it altogether, then Oxford, Cambridge [and the] Russell Group would clearly go very high”.
He added: “I don’t want us to go down the American model of charitable foundations getting a number of smart students from working-class communities, putting them in the Ivy League and pretending they are a universal university. They are not. They are essentially an elitist university with a veneer of people from poorer backgrounds. I want to see everyone have access.”
Jeremy Corbyn: 'I never looked up shadow cabinet's educational qualifications'
Jeremy Corbyn was recently accused in a Spectator article of mounting a “purge of the Oxbridge set” in his shadow ministerial appointments.
“Under Corbyn, the Labour party – once the clever party – has had a brain transplant. It’s out with the Oxbridge and Harvard graduates with first-class degrees; in with the red-brick university graduates,” the article said.
Is Mr Corbyn conscious of taking a different approach to people’s university backgrounds in his appointments?
“When we’ve been doing appointments to the shadow Cabinet and…on the reshuffle, I never looked up anybody’s educational qualifications at all,” he told Times Higher Education. “Let the Spectator know...there is no plot.”
He added: “I want people of all backgrounds doing things. I think I’m the only one round the shadow Cabinet table that doesn’t have a degree actually.”
Mr Corbyn started a course in trade union studies at North London Polytechnic, now subsumed within London Metropolitan University, but left without a degree.
“I absolutely value returning to education as well – I don’t mean that in a personal sense, I mean that as a principle,” he said.
“I want us to value all universities. So when any of our shadow teams are talking about research and events and so on – because we’re looking for partners to do research with us on many, many issues – we’re looking at every university. Because I think we live in a very elitist society and I want to change that."
He joked: “I thank the Spectator for their analysis of my thought process – I’d like to see the evidence.”