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Labour will pledge to abolish tuition fees. But will the policy help them?

The commitment may attract young voters but could intensify the party's profligate image.

By George Eaton

It has long been an open secret in Labour circles that the party’s manifesto will pledge to abolish tuition fees. Jeremy Corbyn first made the pledge in his 2015 leadership campaign (though it has never been official opposition policy). Asked this morning on the Today programme whether Labour would abolish fees of up to £9,250 a year, shadow education secretary Angela Rayner replied: “Watch this space”.

The party will tomorrow holds its traditional Clause V meeting, where the NEC, the shadow cabinet, backbench policy heads and National Policy Forum chairs agree the contents of its manifesto. When John McDonnell made a campaign speech in Mansfield two weeks ago, he stated that Labour would pledge to abolish fees. “We’ve always believed as a movement that education is a gift from one generation to another,” he said.  

“It’s not a commodity to be bought and sold. So we want to introduce – just as the Atlee government with Nye Bevan introduced the National Health Service – we want to introduce a national education service.

“Free at the point of need throughout life. And that means ending the cuts in the schools at primary and secondary level. It means free childcare. It means free school training when you need it throughout life. And yes it means scrapping tuition fees once and for all so we don’t burden our kids with debt for the future.”

The policy dovetails with Labour’s recent universalist approach, which has seen the party pledge to provide free school meals for all pupils and maintain the state pension “triple lock”. At the last election, Ed Miliband pledged to reduce the tuition fee cap from £9,000 to £6,000. Corbyn’s vow to go further is aimed at maxmising student support for Labour.

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A recent poll by the Higher Education Institute of undergraduates put the party on 55 per cent, with the Conservatives on 18 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on just 12 per cent (having not been forgiven by many for their fees U-turn). But the survey also found that 50 per cent did not trust Labour to abolish fees and reinstate maintenance grants. The Lib Dems hope their anti-Brexit stance (the top-rated issue for students) will allow them to regain support.

There are other political risks for Labour. The expensive fees pledge, estimated at £10bn a year, will deprieve the party of resources for other policies, and could intensify its profligate image. Corbyn previously pledged to fund the policy through a 7 per cent rise in national insurance for those earning over £50,000 a year (the party has since ruled out rises on those earning less than £80,000), or a 2.5 per cent rise in corporation tax (the party has now pledged a seven per cent increase but has already committed much of the revenue) or through a slower pace of deficit reduction.

In 2010, the Lib Dems were exposed when they pledged not to increase fees -only for the coalition to triple them). But based on current polling, the task of delivering a manifesto would be a nice problem for Labour to have.