Corbyn said the plan could be funded either by a 7% rise in national insurance for those earning over £50,000 a year and a 2.5% higher corporation tax, or by slowing the pace at which the deficit is reduced.
Corbyn said: “I want to apologise on behalf of the Labour party to the last generation of students for the imposition of fees, top-up fees and the replacement of grants with loans by previous Labour governments. I opposed those changes at the time – as did many others – and now we have an opportunity to change course.”
The move is also designed to strengthen the already strong support his campaign is gaining among younger Labour members.
Corbyn aides said the cost of abolishing tuition fees would be £7.1bn and the cost of restoring maintenance grants would be £3bn.
It is the first detailed new policy Corbyn has set out since he entered the contest.
His populist stance came as Labour high command was close to hitting the panic button at suggestions that private polls were showing Corbyn could win the leadership contest in September.
In an increasingly frenetic contest, the Corbyn camp suspected the leak of the polls was the product of a dirty tricks operation designed to frighten the party membership into waking up to the threat posed by his campaign.
The Andy Burnham team insisted the polls either did not exist or were unreliable, saying its own returns showed Burnham was well ahead.
The campaign spokesman for the centrist Liz Kendall took the polling more seriously, saying the figures suggested Labour party members realised that carrying on with a continuity leader would result in another defeat – but the question was what kind of change Labour would embrace.
Corbyn’s apparent progress came as Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, and currently third-placed in nominations, declared the party should vote against the welfare reform bill next week. Her stance puts her at odds with the interim leader, Harriet Harman.
Cooper said the party should table a reasoned amendment, but if that amendment was defeated the party should vote against the bill. Cooper’s camp said she had been privately making the case for a reasoned amendment, but had not wanted to set up an open confrontation with Harman.
On Tuesday, Burnham revealed he would vote against the welfare bill if a reasoned amendment was defeated.
It was still not clear whether Harman sensed the hostility in her party to any co-operation with the welfare reforms was so strong that she had to back down over a major political initiative.
Harman suggested on Sunday that the party would abstain on the bill because it needed to send out a message to the public that it had learned lessons from its second election defeat, and would not be involved in blanket opposition.
Cooper in a blog on the Huffington Post said Tory plans to cut tax credits would hit working parents hard, undermine incentives to work and push more children into poverty.
“Of course Labour must oppose these plans – they are bad for children, bad for working families, bad for the economy and ultimately bad for the taxpayer too.”
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