Ed Miliband, the leader of the UK’s Labour party, is expected to make a manifesto commitment next month to cut university tuition fees by a third.
News of Labour’s pledge to cut university fees from its current cost of £9,000 per year for UK and EU students to £6,000 per year has received a mixed reception across the political spectrum, as well as from student groups and universities.
The addition of the pledge to Labour’s manifesto has been recognised as a means of attracting the support of middle class and youth voters in the lead-up to this year’s general election.
A recent study by Professor Stephen Fisher for the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has identified ten parliamentary seats where the student vote could be decisive.
In the study, Fisher claims: “It is remarkable the extent to which changes in the student vote at elections since 1997 reflect changes in the perceived generosity of party policy for all three main Westminster parties.
“But if anything, the student vote seems to have reacted more strongly to apparent breaches of promise.”
Hannah Sketchley, national committee member for the student-run National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts (NCAFC), believes the pledge is not enough:
“Labour is clearly just trying to woo the student voters, and this move shows that students can drive the education agenda.
“However, we can’t let ourselves be wooed by this one promise – Labour are still promoting an austerity agenda and slashing benefits, especially for the under 25s.”
With the public sector deficit currently at £91 billion, Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, will need to find a means of covering this significant cost in order for the commitment to be considered credible.
The move, projected to cost approximately £2.5 billion a year, has been branded by Conservatives as an “unfunded spending commitment”.
Meanwhile, representatives of Universities UK (UUK) have voiced concern over the possible financial burden universities may have to foot for Labour’s “short term political gain”.
Sir Christopher Snowden, president of UUK, argued that universities require “stable, long-term funding” in order to maintain their world-class reputation, and that “neither universities nor students benefit from the student funding system being subject to radical reform every few years.”
Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter University and former president of UUK, claimed:
“It’s not a matter of, ‘don’t announce £6,000 fees’, it’s a matter of, ‘don’t announce £6,000 [fees] unless you can say where the money’s coming from’.”
Robert Peston, the BBC’s economics editor, has suggested:
“In practice the cost might turn out to be less, because the current system imposes a hidden charge on government – in that many thousands of students are expected to be unable to repay their loans over the coming years.
“This cost, of expected loan write-offs, might be lower under Labour’s lower-fee system, since the smaller loans might be more affordable for more students.”