Scrapping tuition fees in England is a “majority position” in Labour after Jeremy Corbyn’s two leadership victories and “therefore will become policy”, according to shadow chancellor John McDonnell.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, Mr McDonnell took a more bullish stance on turning Mr Corbyn’s flagship leadership campaign pledge into Labour policy than his leader has previously.
In February 2016, Mr Corbyn told THE that while scrapping fees, funding higher education by public spending and reintroducing maintenance grants – which he costed at £10 billion a year in his first leadership campaign – remained his goal it will take “serious debate within the party to achieve”.
A policy of abolishing fees could provoke confrontation with some Labour MPs if it commits the party to major additional public spending.
After appearing at a University and College Union event, Mr McDonnell said: “Jeremy’s been elected twice now as leader of the Labour Party on the basis of scrapping tuition fees…Obviously we’ll be consulting about how we do that and the mechanism for doing that; we’ll be looking at how we can fund it. And that will happen over the next six months or so.
“But it’s a clear commitment and we want to deliver. It’s still a big issue for large numbers of young people right across the country.”
Mr McDonnell added that, following Mr Corbyn’s “increased mandate” in his second leadership campaign in 2016, he was “convinced” that scrapping fees is “a majority position within the Labour Party itself and therefore will become policy”.
What about a graduate tax? “I think we’ll be more creative than the concept of a graduate tax,” said Mr McDonnell.
Asked about record application rates for students from the poorest areas, despite £9,000 fees, Mr McDonnell said that the figures were “a tribute, really, to the campaigning that we’ve done to encourage working-class kids still to go” to university.
But the Brunel University London and Birkbeck, University of London graduate added: “A lot of working-class kids [now] are working throughout term, part time, some of them almost full-time to just get by. And then when they come out, they are loaded with debt.
“It’s more than just crude numbers – it’s about the quality of education you can get, the quality of life that you have [while studying] and the quality of life afterwards.”
Some UCU members in the audience gave Mr McDonnell a rough ride over Labour’s perceived lacklustre campaigning for Remain in the European Union referendum and its backing for the government on invoking Article 50, with one saying that the party “failed us”.
Mr McDonnell has been criticised by some for saying that Brexit had opened “enormous opportunities” for Labour to “reshape our country”.
He told THE: “What we have to do now is bring both sides of the country together, because it’s split right down the middle, 52:48 – somehow we have to bring that together...The enormous opportunity it [Brexit] gives the Labour Party is being the only party that can unite the country.”
Mr McDonnell said that there was a “threat” in the government’s approach to Brexit to UK participation in the EU’s Erasmus+ programme, as well as to UK universities’ recruitment of continental European students and academics. He said that Labour would “hold the government to account” and “mobilise with [the] UCU and other campaigns to put pressure on the government” on these issues.