Two Labour backbenchers with strong links to students have questioned the party’s policy to abolish tuition fees in England and have called for a debate on it, ahead of the publication of the next manifesto.
Rosie Duffield, Canterbury MP, said the party should “keep that conversation open” and Wes Streeting, Ilford North MP and former National Union of Students president, called the policy a “middle-class subsidy”, in comments at a Labour Students fringe meeting at the party conference in Liverpool.
The pledge to abolish fees and bring back maintenance grants was central to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign and Labour’s manifesto in 2017, and was seen by some as key to the party’s strong performance among students and young people at the election.
But some within Labour argue that the policy – costed at £11 billion a year in the manifesto, making it the party’s most expensive commitment by far – assigns too much priority and resource to higher education at the expense of early years and further education. Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner is said to have rowed with shadow chancellor John McDonnell on this issue when the last manifesto was drawn up.
Ms Duffield was elected in 2017 to a student-heavy constituency. Telling the fringe event how “students can drive Labour into government”, she said that “students were extremely important to my campaign in Canterbury” and “did get out and door-knock for me and campaign”.
But she added that for student voters “it isn’t just about student fees. I’ve always said if there’s a roomful of students you’ll get a roomful of different ideas and issues…It isn’t just all selfish or one-sided.”
Ms Duffield also said: “The whole student tuition ‘story’ is that all students feel exactly the same about it. And I know from Labour students that isn’t the case. Universities don’t all agree on it either. I know in our manifesto we pledged free tuition. But I think perhaps we need to keep that conversation open, to be honest.”
Some people question whether “maybe we could put the money into something else”, she added.
Many in the university sector fear that abolishing fees could lead to the reintroduction of student number caps, in order to control public spending.
Ms Duffield said: “I want students of all backgrounds to have an absolute equal chance at education. That’s so, so vitally important. We don’t want it to go back to this elite, Oxford-Cambridge [system in which] only certain people whose parents can afford it can go – even in the 1990s when my friends were students that was the case, actually.”
Mr Streeting, a long-standing advocate of a graduate tax, made a wider point about the last Labour manifesto, arguing that “we didn’t give enough money to the poorest”.
He continued: “The tuition fees cancelling pledge is really expensive. And if you think that that’s the big priority – which would effectively be a big middle-class subsidy – that’s fine.
“I could actually accept a higher education system that’s universally free. But don’t tell me you’re cutting or abolishing fees for middle-class undergraduates if you’re not also abolishing upfront fees for over-24s in further education who are disproportionately working-class, disproportionately poor, disproportionately black and Asian. Let’s tackle educational inequality; let’s do it properly.
“I think Angela Rayner has absolutely got her priorities right on this. She is passionate about early years, she put further education at the centre of the National Education Service.
“If we start to have those sorts of debates – and if we do it in a good-natured way that genuinely listens to people right across the party – we can make sure the next manifesto is even more hopeful and optimistic, inspiring, but also able to deliver radical change that I think the overwhelming majority of us in the party want to see.”