Labour urged to disarm fees using 'non-nuclear option'

Ex-minister advocates scrapping of Trident to reduce tuition costs. John Morgan reports from Manchester

October 4, 2012

A former cabinet minister has urged the Labour Party to advocate the scrapping of a replacement for the Trident nuclear weapons system to bring tuition fees back to around £3,000.

Another ex Labour minister voiced concerns that the coalition's "complete fouling up of the university system" has left a third of Russell Group institutions with unfilled places.

Nick Brown, MP for Newcastle East and a former chief whip, made his appeal on fees at a fringe event - titled How Do We Bring Down Student Tuition Fees? - held on 1 October during the Labour Party conference in Manchester.

Labour's current policy is to lower the fees cap to £6,000 if it were in power today. "I'm going to say something more than the official policy," Mr Brown said, noting the £25 billion cost of replacing Trident, alongside its £1 billion annual running costs. "It would be better to spend the money bringing down fees," he added. "My ideal position would be to bring [the fees cap] down to the [level] that it was when we left government."

The Newcastle East Constituency Labour Party - which co-hosted the fringe event with the Smith Institute thinktank - submitted a motion to the Labour conference along the lines of Mr Brown's suggestion.

But the motion was not regarded as "contemporary" so was not accepted, he said.

However, 90 MPs have signed an Early Day Motion calling on the government to abandon plans to replace Trident and noting "greater spending priorities" across departments.

Meanwhile John Denham, a former Labour universities secretary who is now parliamentary private secretary to party leader Ed Miliband, offered stringent criticism of current government policy while proposing employer co-funding of student places.

Mr Denham attacked the coalition's policy on fees and its decision to allow universities unlimited recruitment of students with high grades at A level.

He said: "You've got this combination of a disastrous impact on individual student aspirations and a complete fouling up of the university system. I'm told that a third of the Russell Group universities cannot fill their places."

He went on to consider how the cost of higher education might be cut further to allow Labour to go beyond its £6,000 fees-cap proposals, although he cautioned that "this will be more controversial and it's not Labour policy". To begin with, he said, "very few of the bursaries that are in the system have any impact on student participation".

Mr Denham added that in government he had also supported co-funding of places with employers, benefiting students in work who did not claim maintenance grants.

He claimed this had created 20,000 places "at about half the cost of a standard university place" and could be used now "particularly for that group of mature students who are in work, who are the people who have totally abandoned their university aspirations".

He attacked the coalition's "nonsense idea that a student market will drive choice in universities". Instead policy should be based on "a sensible bit of competition and a sensible bit of coordination...using public money to shape the system".

This approach, he argued, could "radically change some of the ways we do higher education, actually get the headline fee down but have other ways of lowering the cost as well".

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