A Liberal Democrat MP and university researcher has criticised Labour for considering a plan to lower tuition fees to £6,000, while urging his own party to retain the goal of scrapping fees completely.
Julian Huppert, the Cambridge MP regarded by some as a rising star in the Lib Dems, said public funding should be used for student bursaries rather than for immediately lowering fees when he spoke at the party’s conference in Glasgow this week.
Meanwhile, Vince Cable, the business secretary, criticised the Conservatives by warning that their “absurd” net migration target is discouraging overseas students from coming to UK universities.
Mr Huppert, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, voted against allowing fees to rise to £9,000 in 2010, but may still face a tough battle to hang on to his seat in a student-heavy constituency.
Speaking at a fringe event on higher education hosted by Million+ and the National Union of Students on 6 October, he said of £9,000 fees: “The problems that I thought there might be have not happened. We are getting more people applying to university.”
Although he continued that “there’s a question whether that’s a good thing or not”, he said that having “more people from poorer backgrounds applying to university” was undoubtedly positive. “I didn’t think that would happen – the evidence clearly shows I was wrong,” Mr Huppert said.
Nonetheless, he added on the fees system: “Personally I would still like to get rid of the whole lot.”
Mr Huppert argued that a Labour policy to lower fees to £6,000 would simply benefit higher earners, allowing them to pay off their loans faster, while lower earners “don’t feel any benefit whatsoever”.
He added: “If there’s money available to, let’s say, reduce fees from £9,000 to £6,000…I would much, much rather use that to provide bursaries for students while they are studying.” At last year’s conference, Lib Dem delegates voted to commit the party to review the system after the 2015 general election and then scrap fees “if possible or necessary”.
Mr Huppert stressed that the review “will include the option of getting rid of fees completely”.
But he acknowledged that – to avoid creating a “rubbish university system” – government funding would have to be found to replace the lost fee income for universities. “I don’t know exactly how we find it at the moment,” he said.
On postgraduate funding, Mr Huppert said he advocated an income-contingent loans system akin to that provided for undergraduates.
“I’ve been trying to persuade Labour and the Conservatives to be interested; I haven’t yet managed. I’ll keep going with that,” he added.
In a speech in the conference’s main hall on 6 October, Mr Cable attacked the Conservatives over an “absolutely absurd immigration target which is plucked out of the air and totally unenforceable”.
He continued: “Overseas students…whose fees subsidise British students and earn us £9 billion a year in the UK, are discouraged and so off they go to the United States or Australia.”