Our universities are famous the world over, and rightly. They are a great British achievement, centres of scholarship and research excellence, full of committed, dedicated, and capable staff. Universities are engines of opportunity that sit at the heart of our towns and cities, bringing jobs, economic growth and prosperity to the communities they serve.
Successive Labour governments have been champions of higher education, expanding opportunities for young people and older learners. I am a proud beneficiary of the last Labour government’s ambition for every young person across our country, of the belief that higher education should be open to all those who want to study at any stage of life. I am determined that the next Labour government will build on this legacy. But I am also determined that we be honest about the impact of the Tories’ economic failure.
Working people are now bearing the highest tax burden since the Second World War. The Conservatives crashed our economy and we are all paying for it every day in higher prices, higher mortgage rates and increasing insecurity.
As Keir Starmer has said, the next Labour government will face some very tough choices, and this means we have to be clear with voters about what we cannot deliver now. While the Tories have reached for the pockets of working people again and again, Labour will not further increase the burden they are carrying. That is why Keir has said we cannot prioritise delivering free university tuition, funded from general taxation.
But things must change. The Conservative tuition fees system has long been broken, and their latest set of reforms will make it worse. More unfair on women. More unfair on low earners. Higher loan repayments not only eat away at pay for young graduates just as they’re starting out on their working lives, but also deter older learners from retraining or upskilling. Future nursing graduates will repay about £60 more a month. The Tories’ choices are hammering the next generation of nurses, teachers and social workers; of engineers, of designers and researchers. It’s wrong.
Labour will reform this system. With our mission to break down barriers to opportunity, we will make it fairer and ensure we support the aspiration to go to university. Plenty of proposals have been put forward for how the government could make the system fairer and more progressive, including modelling showing that the government could reduce the monthly repayments for every single new graduate without adding a penny to government borrowing or general taxation — Labour will not be increasing government spending on this. Reworking the present system gives scope for a month-on-month tax cut for graduates, putting money back in people’s pockets when they most need it. For young graduates this will give them breathing space at the start of their working lives and as they bring up families. This is a choice that the Tories could be making now to deliver a better, fairer system for our graduates and for our universities.
In making the system fairer we must also recognise the pressure that the cost of living crisis is putting on students during their studies. Every time I visit our world-class universities, I meet students taking on extra hours or new part-time jobs to cope with rising bills. The Tories’ economic mismanagement is hurting students’ studies and their chances: more hours spent earning means less time spent learning. That’s affecting the grades students can achieve. And all too often it’s students from lower-income families, sometimes the first in their family to go to university, who are struggling the most.
A university education is an incredible opportunity for each of us and for all of us. Higher education doesn’t only benefit the people who go to university, it enriches our society, our culture and delivers innovations that can lead to better lives for us all.
I was lucky to grow up at a time when the last Labour government was expanding access to university, and I am clear that the next Labour government will build on these achievements, break down barriers to opportunity and ensure that a university education is something to which all our young people can aspire. Universities are beacons of excellence, and excellence must be for everyone.
Bridget’s article originally featured in Red Box.