Labour's tuition fees controversy explained

Jeremy Corbyn Speech

The Labour Party has been under fire in recent days over allegations that it would write-off existing student debt if in governnment. What happened?

In the run-up to the election, the Labour Party promised to scrap tuition fees, but the new controversy has been surrounding a supposed pledge to wipe-out current student debt, according to the BBC.

The controversy surrounds comments from an interview with NME, where Corbyn was asked about his party’s position on tuition fees.

He responded to the interviewer's question by saying:

“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it.”

The first part of his answer is in line with Labour’s pre-election promises. Its manifesto said the party would “introduce maintenance grants” and “abolish tuition fees”. 

In the NME interview Jeremy Corbyn then went on to say:

“Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

John McDonnell

It is this part of his answer, which Labour has received criticism from, and accusations of back-tracking. The answer accepts that the election was called quickly, something that limited Labour’s time for coming up with a full proposal. Corbyn also says there are different options that he is “looking” at when it comes to existing debt. His position is clear: it’s unfair that students under a new Labour government would not have to pay any fees while students before it would have to. But it is the final five words that imply that Labour would do something about existing debt: “I will deal with it.”

There was no specific commitment to wiping out student debt, but there is the implication that a Labour government would definitely consider dealing with it.

When asked about the interview on Andrew Marr on Sunday, the Labour leader said “I recognised it [debt] was a huge burden. I did not make a commitment we would write it off.”

His full answer can be watched here.

Labour’s manifesto is clear. The party promised to abolish tuition fees, but there was no mention of writing off existing student debt. The Labour leader makes a good defence of his words when speaking with Marr, but Andrew Marr’s case that some students might have heard the words “I will deal with it” and think that means a debt write off, is a valid one.