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Lib Dems call for clarity on Labour's tuition fee plans

January 30, 2015 9:16 AM

Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for Newcastle East Dr Wendy Taylor has challenged Labour to come clean on their proposals for funding higher education, amid reports that the university sector is concerned about the potential funding gap if Labour seek to reduce fees to £6000 if they win the General Election.

Labour has refused on several occasions to confirm their plans, and with less than 100 days till polling day, there are suggestions that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are unable to agree a common position and that the party may keep fees at the level introduced by the Coalition.

With Newcastle and Northumbria Universities comprising two of the main employers and drivers of the city's economy, there are growing concerns as to whether their success will be put at risk by a reduction in funding and the implications of further public spending cuts in the sector. The universities sector will undoubtedly face a funding gap if Labour do not identify fully-funded plans. Public spending cuts will put pressure on institutions who are concerned that the true cost of university tuition exceeds the current fees level. Higher education experts are already claiming that the allocation to each university is likely to be further squeezed, and there are questions about what this means for staffing levels, teaching ratios, and the quality of education.

Although the party was unable to secure a parliamentary majority for their aspiration to abolish tuition fees in the current economic climate, the Lib Dems can point with justification to an increase in young people going to university under the reformed university fees system, including a 70% increase in the numbers of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university.

Dr Taylor said "We recognise that tuition fees have been a difficult issue for the Liberal Democrats in recent years, but at the last election both the Conservatives and Labour supported higher fees and we did not have a parliamentary majority to abolish fees without their backing. Nevertheless, we are proud that the changes the Lib Dems put in place have led to a fairer system than previously. We will be reminding voters that we have secured a fairer repayment system which doesn't start until graduates earn over £21,000, with monthly repayments significantly lower than under Labour. We will also be pointing out that Newcastle East MP Nick Brown played a key role in forcing through Labour's own broken promise on top-up fees in 2004.

"Our universities are key to the economy of the city and the region. We are the first to admit it has not been easy, but Liberal Democrats in government have introduced a fairer system which has resulted in greater participation and provided proper funding for universities. Labour need to come clean about how their proposals will make good any shortfall in funding to the HE sector, and what the implications will be for teaching and research. Tens of thousands of people in Newcastle East work or study at Newcastle's universities and they deserve clarity about what Labour intend to do. Labour managed to avoid the issue at the last election, despite commissioning a report that advocated increased fees. This time round, there is an embarrassed silence."

Background : The Financial Times Westminster blog said recently
Leading UK universities have warned Labour about the financial risks of cutting tuition fees a third to £6,000 a year. The party is deciding whether to go ahead with a costly pre-election pledge intended to woo the middle class.
While Labour leader Ed Miliband sees significant political gains from reducing the costs of university education, shadow chancellor Ed Balls has struggled to find a way to meet the cost, likely to be £2bn-£2.5bn, without placing an extra burden on universities.
Several university vice-chancellors - who are, in any case, anticipating significant cuts in government funding in the next spending round - have already expressed their concern.
Addressing a meeting of sector leaders on Tuesday, Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter university, voiced his fear that Labour would make an announcement for "short term political gain" without the proper economic underpinning.
"With the best will in the world, unless they can show us where the money is from, there's a real concern within universities that there's a gap which will need to be filled," Sir Steve said after the event. "It's not a matter of, 'don't announce £6,000 fees', it's a matter of, 'don't announce £6,000 unless you can say where the money's coming from'."
Cutting student fees appeals to Labour because the party has identified eight parliamentary seats where the student vote could be decisive. It has conducted polling which suggests that lower fees would appeal to parents in "scores" of seats around the country.
Aware that voter credibility on student fee promises is low after the Liberal Democrats' U-turn on raising tuition costs five years ago, senior Labour figures are keen to ensure the financing of their proposal is "bulletproof" before unveiling it to the electorate.
The University of Cambridge warned on Tuesday of the "increasing shortfall in meeting the cost of an undergraduate education", suggesting that the true cost of teaching students was nearly three times higher than the proposed £6,000 fee, at £16,600 per student.
Sir Christopher Snowden, president of the umbrella group Universities UK, argued that higher education bodies needed "stable, long-term funding" if they were to keep their world leading reputation. "Neither universities nor students benefit from the student funding system being subject to radical reform every few years," he said.
A shadow cabinet minister said the Labour leadership wanted to make an offer to the electorate on tuition fees, but acknowledged that the party was tying itself in knots on how to fund it.
"This is proper aspiration stuff that middle class voters do look to," the shadow minister said. "But how you pay for it is the sticking point, because equally the same group are worried about the deficit."
The electoral benefits to be reaped from a fee cut are significant. Analysis by Stephen Fisher, a politics professor at Trinity College, Oxford, has established that since 1997, the student vote has "tracked the generosity of party tuition fees". Professor Fisher also singled out six seats where the student vote could swing the result from Conservative to Labour, and two where students could help Labour win from the Lib Dems.
Higher education experts have warned that even without a cut in tuition fees, the amount of money each university is allocated per student will be squeezed because of wider pressures on public spending.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, considers this to be the major issue facing the sector.
"Come the election and subsequent spending review, the whole higher education budget will be under renewed pressure," said Mr Hillman, who left his post as a Conservative special adviser on universities just over a year ago.
"The question is, will the universities have enough money to teach properly?" he said. "What it could mean is crowded lecture halls, less personal interest in the students and increasingly tatty buildings."