Just over half a million young people enter higher education in the UK each year, so Jeremy Corbyn would have to find a substantial sum of money – about £10bn a year – to make good on the pledge he made when running for the Labour leadership to abolish tuition fees and bring back maintenance grants.
That is lower than the headline cost of multiplying the number of undergraduates by the £9,000-a-year tuition fees because the policy only applies to English students, and young people from households earning less than £25,000 a year are exempt. Until recently they also received top-up grants, which are now top-up loans.
The devolved parliament in Edinburgh and the Welsh assembly have their own education budgets and have developed different ways of funding higher education. In Northern Ireland tuition fees are capped at £3,805 as year, leaving the assembly at Stormont to pick up about 40% of the bill.
University officials agree that £10bn would pay for both policies. The figure breaks down into about £8bn to replace fees for students in England and £2bn to bring back maintenance grants.
The shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, has not ruled out Labour making good on the pledge – although the party has yet to spell out how it would be funded.
It is unlikely that it could be paid for by raising corporation tax to 26%, since much of that revenue is already earmarked, including £8bn for schools, educational maintenance grants and free school meals for all primary school pupils. That increase to 26%, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, could bring in £19bn, but that total is likely to decline as firms relocate to lower tax locations and invest less – meaning lower growth.
Critics of the proposal to scrap tuition fees argue that the biggest winners would be middle and higher income families who currently pay the most under what is a means-tested scheme.
Tuition fees have been deemed necessary by governments of both left and right in order to pay for the increase in student numbers.
In 1960, only 5% of young people entered higher education; today it is about 40%, with around 400,000 new English undergraduates each year.
The Labour leader said last year that his plan contrasted with a Tory move to allow approved universities to increase their tuition fees, which he said was a “tax on learning”.
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