What has Sir Keir Starmer said about tuition fees? Labour policy on university student loans explained

The Leader of the Opposition had promised he would scrap the current student loan system during his campaign to become Labour Party leader in 2020

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The Labour Party is “likely” to abandon its pledge to scrap tuition fees for university students in England, Sir Keir Starmer has revealed.

Speaking in an interview with the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, the leader of the opposition said the UK’s economic woes meant it was unlikely he could fulfil the pledge. He had promised to scrap the system during his 2020 leadership campaign.

It comes as the UK faces a year of economic decline - although it is expected to avoid a technical recession. The country’s finances were hit by the Liz Truss premiership, with her series of unfunded tax cuts spooking markets to the extent that the pound crashed to record lows, and the Bank of England had to step in to protect pension funds from going under.

While Rishi Sunak’s administration has restored a degree of market confidence in the UK, the OECD says the country faces weaker growth prospects than most ‘advanced’ economies. It is also in the midst of its worst cost of living crisis in decades, with consumers being squeezed by a combination of soaring inflation and high interest rates.

Research suggests students have been hit especially hard by the crisis, with spiralling costs meaning they are struggling to afford basic products and services, like food and rent. Maintenance loans, which are intended to cover these costs, have failed to keep up with the rate of price rises for several years.

What are university tuition fees?

Tuition fees are what students pay to study at university in England and Wales. At present, they are set at a maximum of £9,250 a year.

The current system was implemented by the Coalition government in 2012, although the policy dates back to Tony Blair’s New Labour government. It attracted mass protests from young demonstrators when it was announced in 2010.

The student maintenance loan is increasing at a rate well-below inflation (image: PA)The student maintenance loan is increasing at a rate well-below inflation (image: PA)
The student maintenance loan is increasing at a rate well-below inflation (image: PA)

It meant students took on more of a financial burden for their education. Most students take out a student loan to cover these fees. They then pay this loan off after graduating, so long as they earn more than £27,295.

What graduates pay back depends on how much they earn a year, as well as the rate of RPI inflation. The system is designed so that higher earners pay back more overall than people on lower incomes. Repayments tend to be made for much of graduates’ working lives.

What has Labour said about tuition fees?

On Monday (1 May), The Times reported Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer was going to diverge from the party’s two previous general election manifestos, and scrap his pledge to abolish tuition fees. He appeared to confirm the move in a BBC interview on Tuesday (2 May).

The Leader of the Opposition had indicated he was shifting on the policy in January, when he said the system was “not working well” but that “damage” to the economy meant he was having to approach costing his general election manifesto with “discipline”.

He said he was considering several proposals for an alternative system. This could include plans put forward during Ed Miliband’s 2015 election campaign that would have seen annual fees cut from the previous £9,000 cap to £6,000.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday morning, he said: "We are likely to move on from that commitment, because we do find ourselves in a different financial situation." He added that the current system was "unfair" and "doesn’t work” for students or universities.