Labour should ‘move forward’ from zero-fees policy, says MP

Cambridge representative Daniel Zeichner calls for ‘open discussion’ on university funding once leadership election is over

February 26, 2020
Source: Getty

Labour should have a “complete rethink” of its stance on English higher education once the leadership battle is over, according to an MP who hopes the party can “move forward a bit” from its policy of abolishing tuition fees.

All three leadership candidates – Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Sir Keir Starmer – have signalled backing for the status quo fees policy.

Jeremy Corbyn, who one of the contenders will succeed in April, made it a signature party pledge to end fees and reintroduce maintenance grants at the 2017 and 2019 elections. The leadership ballot opened on 21 February.

Daniel Zeichner, the Labour MP whose Cambridge seat is one where higher education policy is an important issue, told Times Higher Education: “I quite understand why the leadership candidates are taking the positions they are, because they are trying to win a leadership election. Once we’re past that, I rather hope we can have a more open discussion.

“I would expect [that discussion] to focus a bit more on maintenance costs – because actually that’s what people are telling us is one of the key issues. But, for me, always the point has been that we don’t want to go back to the situation where we started in the mid-90s, where universities were woefully underfunded.”

Labour introduced tuition fees on top of direct public funding in 1998, to increase funding for universities. The Conservative-led coalition government subsequently trebled fees and slashed direct public funding. Some vice-chancellors are hostile to Labour’s pledge to abolish fees, believing it would lead to reductions in university funding.

Mr Zeichner said: “It may be the conclusion the party comes to is it does want to stick to the current policy. But I would rather hope we can move forward a bit.”

He called the abolition of fees “a very big ticket item, a lot of money. A number of people have questioned whether it is now the top priority.”

Changes to the way student loans are classified in government accounts reduced the cost of Labour’s fees policy from £11.2 billion in 2017 to £7.2 billion in 2019.

Asked whether he had a preferred policy on funding, Mr Zeichner said it was “reasonable to say people are leaving with far too much debt – there’s no two ways about that. The question is whether you go the whole hog to free. There’s still a case to be made for that, but it’s got to be balanced against other things.”

He added: “It’s worth looking at the Welsh example; it’s worth looking at the Scottish experience as well.”

Wales’ Labour-led government has switched public funding away from fee subsidies towards generous maintenance grants and loans.

But given that all candidates have backed the current policy on fees in England, wouldn’t it be impossible for the new leader to backtrack?

“It’s a democratic party,” said Mr Zeichner, pointing out the role of Labour’s National Policy Forum in shaping policy.

He highlighted the context of the Augar review’s call for a rebalancing of funding between higher education and further education.

“I would have thought it would be absolutely right for the Labour Party to have a complete rethink of all its policies around those issues,” Mr Zeichner said. “And I don’t think you’re necessarily bound to what a leadership candidate said during the contest.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

Oddly, this article refers only to the Tories trebling fees. Labour did this themselves in 2004. I wonder why this isn't mentioned?
Of course the universities can abolish student fees. It's not difficult. Just make the taxpayer pay the salary and benefits of faculty and administrative staff...
Labour is so far out of touch whatever they promise is likely to cause knock-on effects, fee's are only a part of the problem.

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