Labour: We never pledged to write off tuition fee debts
Labour has “no plans” to write off existing student debt and has never promised to do so, the party’s education spokeswoman has insisted.
Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner accused the Tories of “wilfully misrepresenting” its plans amid claims such a move could cost £100bn.
During the election, Jeremy Corbyn said he would act to reduce the debt burden of students having to pay £9,000 fees.
Several frontbenchers have distanced themselves of talk of a debt amnesty.
In March 2016, the total amount of debt owed by English students and EU students studying in England, who under the current system do not have to pay anything upfront, was £76.3bn.
In their manifesto, Labour promised to scrap university tuition fees in England but there was no mention of writing off unpaid student debt.
During the campaign, the Labour leader pledged, if he won power, to look at ways to lengthen the period of paying it off or “some other means of reducing that debt burden”.
In an interview with music and youth lifestyle title NME, he said: “And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”
Speaking to the BBC earlier this month, Ms Rayner said it was the party’s “ambition” to write off all debt but she acknowledged the cost would be “huge” and it would not commit to doing it “unless we can afford to”.
The Conservatives have accused Labour – which originally introduced tuition fees in 2006 but opposed their rise to £9,000 in 2012 – of making a cynical pledge to students they knew could never be delivered.
But speaking during a debate in the Commons about the planned rise in fees to £9,250 this September, Ms Rayner said this was not the case.
“They refer to comments made by (Mr Corbyn) and I would remind them that he said we would look at steps to reduce or eliminate the debt burden.
“Perhaps this confused members opposite, that is not something their frontbench has done for seven years.
“For instance, we would look again at the repayment threshold for student debts, which they have frozen at £21,000… we would look at the interest rates on debt, which they allowed to reach an extortionate 6.1%.
“And I’ve said once, and I will say it again, we have no plans to write off existing student debt and we never promised to do so.”
Conservative MPs accused Labour of knowingly misleading students in the pursuit of votes.
Tim Loughton, a former education minister, accused Labour of a “scam” while ex-leader Iain Duncan Smith said Labour had treated students as “election fodder”.
“During the election her party made it categorically clear to endless numbers of students that they would abolish the student debt,” he said. “Will she now get up and apologise?”
Recent research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested students in England are set to graduate with average debts of £50,800, with many poorer students incurring much higher sums.
Under the current system, loans that are not repaid after 30 years are written off for degree courses begun after 2012 and after 25 years for courses between 2006 and 2012.
The Green Party was the only party at the last election to make a firm manifesto pledge to write off student debt.