Starmer contradicts campaign chief over plans to scrap university tuition fees

Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, appears on the BBC's Question Time on Thursday
Appearing on the BBC's Question Time, Bridget Phillipson was asked if she would remove the current cap of £9,250

Labour’s stance on tuition fees descended into chaos as Sir Keir Starmer branded them “unfair” hours after his shadow education secretary suggested they may be raised.

Sir Keir said he wanted to “change the current arrangement” as he was questioned over abandoning his 2020 leadership pledge to axe the £9,250-a-year payments.

But he risked angering his Left-wing MPs after insisting that he would not revive the promise even if the economy improved enough to make it affordable.

The Labour leader made the comments a day after Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, had suggested fees may have to be increased to save universities.

Students protest in central London
Universities in England made an average loss of £2,500 for every domestic student they educated last year - Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media

Earlier on Thursday, Pat McFadden, the party’s national campaign coordinator, appeared to rule out any prospect of tuition fees being scrapped.

Sir Keir said he would have abolished the payments “in an ideal world” but that doing so was now unaffordable because the economy had been “so badly damaged” by the Tories.

He argued he faced a choice over whether to spend billions on getting rid of university fees or funding cutting NHS waiting lists and prioritised the latter.

But he told the BBC: “Tuition fees, or abolishing them, was something that I said five years ago now that I would like to see.

“I do still think that the tuition fee system is unfair. It’s unfair on those that are at university. It’s actually unfair on universities. Of course, I still want to resolve the tuition fees.”

He added: “I certainly believe we’ve got to change the current arrangement because I don’t think they’re fair. Obviously abolishing tuition fees is one way of achieving that.

“I think how most people think is ‘look, yes, in an ideal world I would like a number of things, but in the real world, I can’t have them all’. I’ve got to make some difficult choices.

“And I’d rather make the choice now, this side of the election, than say something which I know in my heart of hearts is not deliverable the other side of the election.”

When asked later if he could revive the pledge in the long term if economic conditions allowed, he replied: “No, we’re now looking at alternatives to that.”

His remarks appeared to directly contradict Ms Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, who had suggested fees may have to be increased to save universities.

‘Putting fees up is an unpalatable choice’

During an appearance on Newsnight, Ms Phillipson said the decade-long freeze, under which fees have been set at £9,000 a year since 2012-13, meant “universities are increasingly struggling to cover the cost of tuition”.

“International students are increasingly cross-subsidising the education of domestic students because of the situation we’ve ended up in,” she told the BBC.

Asked whether fees could be put up again under Labour, she added: “That is a really, really unpalatable choice. I do not want to have to do that, I absolutely don’t.”

Earlier on Thursday, Mr McFadden was asked whether Sir Keir would revive his pledge to axe them if economic conditions improved.

“I think the position is settled on that,” he replied, indicating fees would remain in place.

Richard Holden, the Tory chairman, said: “Sir Keir Starmer hasn’t just broken his leadership campaign promise to scrap tuition fees, he’s now smashing it up with a sledgehammer.

“Not only will Starmer not scrap tuition fees, his Shadow Education Secretary is saying he will increase them.

“It’s no wonder people think Sir Keir Starmer doesn’t have the courage, conviction or plan to secure Britain’s future in an uncertain world.”

Momentum, the left-wing pressure group, added: “Our universities are in crisis. The country is crying out for a real alternative to Tory ruin.

“That means bold Labour policies like abolishing tuition fees and scrapping the 2-child cap. The status quo won’t cut it.”