Phillipson says raising fees ‘unpalatable’ but won’t rule it out

Shadow education secretary puts focus on tweaking student finance and encouraging knowledge exchange as election looms

May 24, 2024
Warwickshire - United Kingdom - 06 19 2022 Vote Labour sign outside of a house in England.
Source: iStock/Alicia Monedero

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said that increasing tuition fees in England would be “really unpalatable” – but failed to rule it out – as the calling of a UK general election put heightened focus on Labour’s policy on higher education funding.

Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour pledged to abolish tuition fees and fund university teaching directly from public funds instead, but this policy has been dropped by current leader Sir Keir Starmer. However, with the value of £9,250 fees now severely eroded by inflation and growing numbers of universities facing potentially existential financial crises, the party is yet to spell out its solution for the sector in more detail.

Appearing on the BBC’s Question Time programme, Ms Phillipson was pressed on whether Labour would raise the English tuition fee cap and, while she expressed her distaste for this, she did not rule it out altogether.

“That is a really, really unpalatable choice,” she told host Fiona Bruce. “I do not want to have to do that – I absolutely don’t – because, when I speak to students across the country, what they tell me is that increasingly they can’t manage the cost of living.

“We need to look at all of the options around that and I want to make sure that young people from less well-off backgrounds have the support that they need to go to university if that is what they want.”

Ms Phillipson said that the tuition fee freeze meant that universities were “increasingly struggling to cover the cost of tuition”, and that international students “increasingly are cross-subsidising the education of domestic students”.

However, the MP for Houghton and Sunderland South’s more substantial comments on the issue focused on reforming the “regressive” student finance system, which leaves some of the poorest graduates repaying the most on their student loans.

Ms Phillipson said that she was “determined that we can deliver a more progressive system without any more spending or borrowing, but from the system that we have at the moment for students”, apparently referring again to modelling by London Economics, commissioned by the University of the Arts London, whose vice-chancellor is former Labour cabinet minister James Purnell. Its analysis suggested a “stepped repayment system” whereby higher-earning graduates paid more – or a graduate tax – could save public money while removing the “regressive features” of government changes that took effect in September.

However, reforms along these lines would not route any additional funding to universities. On the question of “what we can do around investing more money directly into our universities”, Ms Phillipson said that the answer was “to support them around spin-outs, around research, and around the business impact they can have”.

“It means encouraging them to be involved in wider activity that they can then reinvest in their institutions,” she said.

Separately, Sir Keir said that he had abandoned the pledge to abolish tuition fees – something that he endorsed during his Labour leadership campaign – in order to prioritise cutting NHS waiting lists.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the current funding system has “got to change” but that the state of the economy meant that his party could not invest everywhere that it wanted to.

“Looking at the costing for tuition fees or abolishing them, looking at the money we need to put into the NHS, I’ve taken the decision that we can’t do both. That’s a difficult decision, I’ll accept that,” he said.

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