Vince Cable has criticised Labour’s plan to cut university tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000, calling it “a populist gesture that would achieve nothing and do a lot of damage”.
The business secretary’s comments come as Peter Mandelson, the last Labour cabinet minister responsible for higher education, prepares to give a speech to Universities UK, where he is expected to warn that any reform to tuition fees must ensure that university funding is sustained.
Ed Miliband made lowering tuition fees a central issue of his campaign to be Labour leader, but the party has repeatedly delayed setting out its policy ahead of the general election in May. It is expected to clarify its position by the end of February.
Cable said those advising Miliband on university tuition fee policy are telling him that cutting fees would be a “very foolish thing to do because it will either open a very large hole in their budget or it will be funded by quite serious cuts to universities”.
The Liberal Democrat minister argued that his party had apologised for tripling tuition fees in a coalition government after making a manifesto promise to abolish them, but said the current system was fairer.
“We weren’t the only party that made pledges to students that were subsequently broken,” he said. “The Labour party did it twice. The Tories campaigned on no fees in 2005 and did a U-turn.
“It is a sad history and I think the most sensible thing for politicians to do now is to tell it straight, that the present system isn’t going to change and it’s better than what we had before.”
Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, Cable argued that the system introduced by the coalition government was effectively a graduate tax by another name. “I think you’re thinking about it as a debt-based system, which is of course how the language is framed, but it’s actually a form of graduate tax.”
He said that introducing an actual graduate tax would prevent the government from claiming money back from EU students, who are entitled to pay the same fees as those from the UK.
“We’ve got more people applying to university than ever before, more people from disadvantaged backgrounds,” Cable added. “Universities are in good shape financially and the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] gave a very favourable review to the way universities are now funded.”