Labour fighting about fees?

Shadow Universities, Skills & Science Minister Liam Byrne has given a far-ranging interview to The House Magazine this week. It includes some interesting clues to where Labour is on HE fees – a question on the lips of much of the sector. Perhaps more intriguingly, this interview and other briefings are being used as evidence elsewhere for Labour being at war at the top.
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Shadow Universities, Skills & Science Minister Liam Byrne has given a far-ranging interview to The House Magazine this week. It includes some interesting clues to where Labour is on HE fees – a question on the lips of much of the sector. Perhaps more intriguingly, this interview and other briefings are being used as evidence elsewhere for Labour being at war at the top.

Speculation is rife about a coming reshuffle and it is said that Ed Milliband had wanted to move Ed Balls – a key dividing line between them being what to do about fees (Ed M wants 6k, Ed B doesn’t – allegedly). This is repeated in today’s The Times and in the Waugh Room Memo and on LabourUncut earlier in the week.

I think this is largely overblown – I do not believe that the 6k fees policy is important enough to anyone in the Shadow Cabinet to cause such a major row, let alone a falling-out on the scale that could lead to Ed Balls’ sacking. I think the lobby is searching for reasons to justify the ‘Eds Split’ story – but I may be proved wrong about this.

The House Magazine

In the piece published last night by The House Magazine Liam Byrne makes it clear that there will be no announcement on fees until after the Autumn Statement which makes a degree of sense. The Times has today written up this passage as ‘Liam Byrne delaying fees announcement’.

We’ve got to see the Chancellor’s figures,” he says. “[George] Osborne announced a big expansion of university places and said it would be paid for by selling the loan book. In July, Vince Cable then says he’s decided not to sell the loan book. So what on earth is going on? Nobody knows; it’s a mystery. That’s never going to be cleared up until the Autumn Statement. So we’re not going to play fantasy finances with Britain’s universities, because that’s what this government gave us. And look where it’s got us.

The sector will be pleased about this passage:

He says an announcement on fees will come “when it’s ready”, explaining: “I know that’s a really simple answer, but the Lib Dems were punished so badly for lying and breaking their word, and we’re just not going to make that mistake. We’re not going to go off half-cocked on university finances – we’re going to get this absolutely right.”

He does hint, however, that the party has set out “a direction of travel” towards lower fees. “We’d love to bring the cost down. But students and their parents, as well as the university community, will ask us how we’re going to pay for it. So until we’ve dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’…”

‘Dotting every I and crossing every t’ will be a phrase repeated back to Byrne by the sector if he does not keep to his word. Indeed the principle concern about the 6k policy was the lack of detail – how would it be paid for? What effects would it have on university finance? So this strong commitment to sorting out the detail will be welcomed.

Another  important passage  – on the graduate tax:

Shortly after taking over in this role, Byrne said Labour’s “long-term” aim was for a graduate tax, with a cut in fees expected as a stop on the way. Is that still the case? “We’re going to nail that down for the manifesto,” he replies, pointing out that he has been an advocate of a graduate tax since his days as leader of the Manchester Students’ Union in the early 1990s.

“We become the first students’ union in the country to publish proposals and an argument for a graduate tax, so I’ve long been a supporter of the idea. Turning it into action is complex, especially when your debt-to-GDP ratio is nearly 80%. So this is an idea with many virtues, but actually what people want is a plan.”

In other words the graduate tax is still a vague aspiration of some in the party, but it’s possibly unworkable given the enormous implications for the deficit (as it would effectively move the entire HE budget to be scored against it). The coming election will be won or lost on economic credibility, and if the graduate tax can’t appear economically sound, then it won’t be promised. Don’t hold your breath for it appearing in the manifesto – Byrne is kicking this in to the long grass.

You can read the interview in full here.

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