Labour grandee Lord Mandelson has warned left-wingers that growing opposition to tuition fees in England has been “seized upon” by right-wing opponents who would restrict access to higher education to an elite few.
While the current Labour leadership is campaigning to abolish fees and the Conservative government is reviewing student finance, the peer – who, as business secretary, set up the Browne review which led to the raising of the fee cap to £9,000 under a Tory-led coalition in 2012 – said that he was yet to hear a “wholly convincing case” for reducing fees.
Lord Mandelson said that, although he felt that the burden of paying for higher education had “arguably” gone too far towards students, public spending constraints meant that “co-payment” was “here to stay”.
In a keynote speech at the annual conference of the Higher Education Policy Institute which contained several pointed warnings for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as well as party colleague Lord Adonis, who has called for tuition fees to be cut to £3,000, Lord Mandelson said he was “intensely proud” that the last Labour government had set in train “essential changes” in how higher education is paid for. These had widened access “without affecting” quality, according to the ex-minister, who is chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University.
“This expansion and its system of co-payment is vulnerable to attack by those, mostly on the left, who claim that universities are charging over the odds and exposing students to unacceptable costs and debt burdens,” Lord Mandelson said. “Predictably, this is being seized upon by those, mostly on the right, who have always argued that expansion is the enemy of excellence and that students are being required to pay more for degrees that will not lead to satisfying jobs.
“The agenda of these critics is to turn the clock back to an era when universities were largely funded out of taxation which enabled the Treasury to cap student numbers at fewer, more elite universities. I don’t want to return to this era.”
The public finances are not strong enough to fund free higher education, Lord Mandelson argued, adding: “Jeremy Corbyn and [shadow chancellor] John McDonnell will realise this…if they come to power.”
If more funding did become available, then it should not be spent on “subsidising well-off students from advantaged, middle-class homes”, but on helping low-income students with their living costs or tackling the crisis in part-time education, the peer said.
Asked by Times Higher Education whether he therefore felt that the current fee cap of £9,250 was appropriate, Lord Mandelson said he was “yet to see a wholly convincing case for the cap to be lower”.
“Of course there should be great taxpayer funding; I would like to see that, I think arguably the balance has gone too far the other way [towards students],” Lord Mandelson answered. “But is it open to us now, given the state of public finances, radically to cut tuition fees, as some have suggested, by two-thirds? What sort of university sector would we have if we did that?”
In his speech, Lord Mandelson added: “Those arguing for the slashing of student fees need to be careful what they wish for and realise that the consequence of their no doubt sincerely meant agitation will not in fact be radical improvement…but a smaller, meaner, less productive and less accessible university sector.”