On Friday, Labour set out plans to tackle spiralling student debt by cutting the tuition fee cap from £9,000 to £6,000 for all undergraduates, and providing additional grants for students from lower-income backgrounds.
The Tories have failed to set out any plans of their own. And we know why. They refuse to rule out raising fees yet again, paving the way for them to load more debt on students.
We know this because of their past actions, their extreme spending plans and what they say or don’t say.
The Tories have form. They once campaigned on a promise to abolish fees entirely. David Cameron himself said that “debt” was “holding back opportunity and stopping the children of hardworking families from going to university”. The Tories’ trebling of fees to £9,000 while in power means that the average student will now graduate with £44,000 of debt.
When they took this decision four years ago, no one in government ruled out further future rises. Even as some universities argued for an “incremental approach to removing the fee cap”, the government did not rule out fees – and student debt – going up again.
The Tories have set out spending plans for the next parliament which make fee rises inevitable. Conservative party plans to cut spending on services as a share of GDP back to 1930s levels, before there was an NHS, are extreme and risky, and will cut public services spending by over £50bn.
As a result, the Tories will be unable to fix their broken system without pushing up fees – so you will pay for their failure.
When given a chance to rule this out, the Tories refuse to do so. Indeed, there are reports that ministers are actively considering another fees hike.
Just last year, David Willetts, the then universities minister, opened the door to future increases, saying the government would “have to see how the income of universities performs”.
At last year’s Tory party conference, Margot James, a member of No 10’s policy board, said that “fees in the future may even have to rise”. The man George Osborne recently recruited as a special adviser and his policy chief has said, “let the market decide the price of a degree”.
In July last year, it was reported that ministers are actively considering proposals to allow universities to raise fees above the £9,000-a-year ceiling.
From their record on fees to date, their spending plans for the future and their open speculation over another rise, students and their families will be entitled draw one conclusion: the Tories plan to raise fees yet again.
As Prof Michael Gunn, chair of the university thinktank million+ and vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University has said, “the Conservatives must flesh out in detail how they intend to fund universities after 2015. Students and universities need to know before the election whether or not their £9,000 fee cap would be lifted”.
The Liberal Democrats, of course, are more than culpable. In opposition, the Lib Dems infamously campaigned on a promise to scrap tuition fees if they got into power. In power, they voted to treble fees. Now, they too refuse to rule out a further rise.
When challenged to rule out any further fee increase at deputy prime minister’s questions in March 2014, Nick Clegg did not do so. Danny Alexander and Vince Cable have both recently had the opportunity to rule out a fees increase but failed to. Cable has indicated he is prepared to see this happen, saying this is “a choice the next government would have to make”.
The Lib Dems’ pre-manifesto commits to a “review” of higher education funding. The last time the Lib Dems had a review they tripled fees.
The Lib Dems betrayed students once, which is why working people know they cannot be trusted, and they seem to be preparing for a repeat performance.
Both parties in government claim to be on the side of young people, but their record tells a different story. The number of young people starting apprenticeships is falling, teaching standards are slipping, class sizes are rising and young people cannot get on the housing ladder.
Now we know that if people vote Tory or Lib Dem in May and wake up to see fees over and above £15,000, they won’t be surprised.
There is only one party that has a plan which can be delivered to support the next generation – Ed Miliband’s Labour party.
By Chuka Umunna MP