The Labour Party, currently the main opposition party, will abolish university tuition fees “once and for all” if it wins power at the general election, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell announced on 10 May in Mansfield. It will also restore maintenance grants.
But cutting tuition fees is not among the political priorities of universities, according to a list published by Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body last week.
Securing an effective post-Brexit settlement for universities and introducing a new immigration system that welcomes international students and staff are two priorities among five areas that universities would like politicians to address in their manifestos before next month's general election.
Addressing a march in support of the National Health Service, McDonnell said on 10 May: “We have always believed as a movement that education is a gift from one generation to the next. It is not a commodity to be bought and sold. So we want to introduce a national education service, free at the point of need throughout life."
“That means scrapping tuition fees once and for all so we don’t burden our kids with debt in future,” he said.
He said free education for life would create a society that is “radically fairer, radically more equal and radically more democratic”.
The commitment to scrapping fees and restoring maintenance grants is also spelled out in a draft of the Labour manifesto, leaked on Thursday, although the final manifesto has yet to be published.
Also of interest to universities is a pledge in the draft to abolish immigration targets in contrast to the Conservatives’ insistence on cutting immigration to tens of thousands, including international students.
As the main political parties finalise their manifesto commitments, Universities UK has identified five priorities for the next government:
- Securing an effective post-Brexit settlement for universities;
- Supporting universities in their role as anchors for growth in local economies;
- Increasing funding for science, research and innovation to match our competitors;
- Supporting world-leading teaching, student experience and improving outcomes;
- An effective immigration system.
Some of the issues – which is also the case with tuition fees – are matters for the devolved governments of the countries within the UK and will require devolved solutions.
Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, said it is important that the universities’ voice is heard during the campaign on key election issues that will have a direct impact on universities, “in particular, Brexit and immigration policy”.
Ahead of the election, Universities UK is asking all political parties to adopt policies that “help universities to continue to boost the economy, jobs, skills, research and improve social mobility”.
“The vote to leave the European Union and the general election present an unparalleled opportunity to re-think the UK's immigration system. If we are to keep up with competitor countries, we need a new system that welcomes international students and staff and promotes the UK as one of the best places in the world for higher education and research,” Dame Julia said.
Support from students
Labour’s draft manifesto commitments have received support from staff and student unions.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “The direction of travel set out in Labour's draft manifesto is very welcome, and we await the full details with anticipation.”
Malia Bouattia, president of the National Union of Students, said: “While we don't yet have the full details, the leaked Labour manifesto indicates that we may finally see a mainstream party responding to our calls for a free education by proposing to abolish tuition fees and re-instate maintenance grants.
“The question of student funding and living costs is one that all parties will need to answer ahead of the general election. These changes would be extremely welcome.”
University tuition fees are a burning issue among young voters in particular. They were introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1998, rising to £3,000 (US$3,900) a year in 2004, and tripled by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2012. The current outgoing Conservative government planned to raise them to £9,250 (US$11,900) per year in the autumn.
The Liberal Democrats are still paying the price of abandoning a pledge to block any fee rise when they campaigned in the 2010 election. A survey this month of 1,000 undergraduates for the Higher Education Policy Institute found students plan to back Labour and the Conservatives ahead of the Liberal Democrats.
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