England should be “utterly ashamed” that its universities have the highest fees of any public institutions in the developed world as it is "locking people out of the skills of the future", according to Jeremy Corbyn.
The Labour leader also told a University and College Union event in London today that £9,000 fees are to blame for a “catastrophic” decline in part-time student numbers that would damage the national interest.
The speech, at a conference titled “Education from cradle to grave”, was Mr Corbyn’s first on education since his election as leader in September 2015.
Although Mr Corbyn criticised the £9,000 fee system he did not directly refer to his own goal to scrap fees, which he outlined as a signature policy in his leadership campaign.
Labour’s policy on fees and funding remains a “subject for discussion”, Gordon Marsden, the shadow higher education, further education and skills minister, recently told Times Higher Education.
Mr Corbyn told the audience of UCU members that the government’s “cuts and attacks” across school, further and higher education were “doing permanent damage to the whole of our society and to the ability to develop a much stronger manufacturing-based innovative economy in the future”.
Education is “yes, about training, and yes, about the ability to work, but it’s also about the value of having an educated society where everybody’s imagination is opened up”, he added.
Mr Corbyn said that “education is of such huge economic and social importance it must be open to all regardless of background or wealth”.
But he argued that in England “the cost of higher education is extortionate and prohibitive. The government claimed that students from disadvantaged backgrounds would not be put off by the fees of 2012 because of maintenance grants.
“The government has now scrapped those much needed maintenance grants, which means that thousands of students every year will be worse off.”
He added: “We have the highest tuition fees in the industrialised world – it’s not something we should be proud of, it’s something we should be utterly ashamed of as a country.”
In terms of average fees at public institutions, the OECD recently ranked England top ahead of the US among its member nations.
This was “locking people out of the skills of the future”, Mr Corbyn said, “particularly mature and part-time students who are absolutely vital to our country in terms of the value they bring”.
The decline in part-time numbers is such that the number of students studying part-time in universities is now 570,000, down from 824,000 five years ago, Mr Corbyn said.
This meant that “a quarter of a million people a year have been put off part-time education by the hikes in fees – a loss to the institutions, a loss to the education of the whole country and obviously catastrophic for those quarter of a million individuals who wanted to develop themselves…[who] cannot now do it because of these costs.”
Highlighting the government’s decision to retrospectively change its stance on the uprating of the student loan repayment in line with earnings, Mr Corbyn said students who have entered higher education are “now being betrayed by a government which changes the terms of the loans after they have been taken out. How can any prospective student trust an education system which treats them like this?”
He added: “David Cameron has called on universities to take more black and minority ethnic students. I welcome that and I agree with that.
“We call on the government to recognise that, however, that these students are being put off disproportionately by the cuts to funding and abolition of maintenance grants.”
Mr Corbyn said that “huge inequality” would emerge in higher education as a result of the loss of maintenance grants, combined with the need for many students to work while they study.
Students are “having to juggle two or three jobs and studying in order to make something of their lives – from which we all benefit. Surely we can do better than that and we must change to do better than that,” he said.