Tuition fees: How the left has responded to Keir Starmer’s U-turn

The Labour leader has said the party will 'move on' from a commitment to abolish tuition fees

Student protesters

After the Times reported that the Labour Party’s policy on higher education was set to change, the party’s leader Keir Starmer confirmed that would Labour is ‘likely to move on’ from a commitment he previously made to abolish university tuition fees. He made the pledge during his campaign to become leader of the Labour Party.

But now Starmer says that while “the current system is unfair” and “doesn’t really work for students”, because the UK is in a “different financial situation” than three years ago, Labour will be looking at other options for university funding.

The reported shift on tuition fees has been welcomed by some Labour members. Former Labour MP Mike Gapes, who defected to Change UK in 2019 before rejoining Labour in 2023, said: “The Corbynite policy of scrapping all tuition fees is regressive giving a huge subsidy to those from wealthier families. Better to spend the money on restoring Sure Start, primary schools and more help for Further Education students. Starmer is right.”

However, the change in policy has been criticised by others within the Labour Party.

Left wing faction Momentum compared Starmer’s shifting position to that of Nick Clegg, who famously went into the 2010 general election pledging to abolish tuition fees only to triple them when in government. A spokesperson for Momentum said: “This move wouldn’t just fly in the face of party democracy and the wishes of Labour Students. It would be a betrayal of millions of young people in desperate need of hope. The Labour leadership should learn from Nick Clegg’s failure, not repeat it.”

The former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made similar comments. He tweeted: “Young people should not be saddled with a lifetime of debt just because they want to get an education. Abolish tuition fees, restore maintenance grants and deliver free education for all.”

Trade unions and other political parties have also criticised the shift in Labour’s position. Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) said: “Keir Starmer repeatedly pledged to abolish the toxic system of tuition fees and in doing so was elected leader of the Labour party. It is deeply disappointing for him to now be reneging on that promise, a move which would condemn millions of future students to a life of debt. What we really need is a positive vision for higher education that puts staff and students first”

And Green Party of England and Wales co-leader Adrian Ramsay said: “This is the latest U-turn from Keir Starmer’s Labour and this time it’s students who are paying a heavy price. The Green Party believes tuition fees should be scrapped and grants restored. 

“Higher education is a public good and should therefore be properly funded by Government. Students in England pay some of the highest fees in the world, while in Scotland, Germany and Sweden university education is free. This shows that the whopping £9000 charge for students, introduced by the coalition government and now backed by Labour, is a political choice. Publicly funded higher education is not only possible but essential to a society committed to equality and social mobility.”

Chris Jarvis is head of strategy and development at Left Foot Forward

Image credit: Socialist Appeal – Creative Commons

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