Following the Labour Party’s policy announcement two weeks ago that it would commit to cutting tuition fees to £6000 per year and increase student grants by £400 per year should it form a government after the general election in May, the Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills—and University of Manchester alumnus—Liam Byrne MP came to the Students’ Union on Thursday the 5th of March to answer students’ questions about the policies. Labour candidate for Manchester Withington, Jeff Smith, joined him.
Byrne promised to “deliver a better deal for students in the system today,” and described his party’s policies as part of a “moral crusade” against the policies of the current government, which he claims have been “disastrous” for young people, including the now-infamous tripling of tuition fees to £9000.
Byrne claims his party has learned from the example set by the Liberal Democrats, saying Labour “cannot and will not promise things [they] can’t guarantee”, with priority being given to not “doing a Nick Clegg.” Labour’s policy promises are to reduce the headline cost of tuition fees from £9000 to £6000, whilst also making more than half of undergraduates eligible for maintenance grants from September 2016.
The Shadow Minister declared that the policies would be fully funded, with the £2.7 billion shortfall covered by reducing tax relief on pension contributions for those earning more than £150000 per year, and reducing the amount of money that can be saved tax-free from £1.25 million to £1 million. The change is necessary, Byrne said, because it would cut the liability of all students to incurring debt, and is more progressive because three-quarters of graduates do not presently pay back the money borrowed at £9000.
Byrne attempted to portray Labour as the guardians of education, by claiming that a return to government for David Cameron would lead to the collapse of the student finance system and the “guaranteed” hiking of tuition fees, up to £16000. Byrne described the Prime Minister’s fiscal plan to take £55 billion out of public spending by 2016/17 as “crazy,” and that students remaining as part of the net migration targets set by the government was effectively sending a “go home message” to foreign students studying in the UK. Further, Byrne said that the pledge to hold an in-out referendum on EU membership would “fundamentally jeopardise” the relationship with the EU, and the £1 billion per year research funding given to universities like the University of Manchester.
There was controversy during the event when Free Education MCR campaigners interrupted the session, unfurling an anti-tuition fees banner and accusing Labour of making only a “nominal concession” to the idea of free education by pledging to reduce fees by a third. One of the activists told the MP that the number at the front of the banner could be changed from a 9 to a 6 and that the message behind it will stay the same.
Byrne described the free education movement as “inspiring” and that he was “spiritually with” the campaigners, but emphasised the need to “live in the real world,” asserting that it is unfeasible that a government could close tax loopholes and increase corporation tax to such an extent in one parliament to raise the funds necessary to meet the demands of the free education movement.
Whilst the event was primarily focused on Labour’s fees policies, there was a continual emphasis on voter registration, especially amongst young people. Byrne highlighted the fact that 95 per cent of the over-55s are registered to vote in the Withington constituency, but in a constituency where one-third of those eligible to vote are students, 3000 people have fallen off the register, the majority of which live in student areas.
He emphasised it is key to the integrity of the democratic process that as many students register to vote and have their voices heard on the 7th of May as possible, and that it was time for young people to “strike back.”