Increasing tuition fees to £9,250 a year will uphold a "fundamental principle of fairness", according to the government minister responsible for universities.
Jo Johnson told BuzzFeed News that the government was committed to the existing tuition fees system, defended interest rates of up to 6.1% on the loans, and insisted Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's pledge to abolish fees altogether would make it harder for poor students to go to university.
The Conservative minister said it is right that students pay towards the cost of their education, rather than relying on the taxes of people who didn't go to university.
"It’s fundamentally right and fair that this cost is shared between people who are higher lifetime earners and the general taxpayer," said Johnson, speaking ahead of a House of Commons debate on the future of tuition fees. "It’s a fundamental principle of fairness. Jeremy Corbyn’s policy platform breaches every single aspect of fairness."
Labour's shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, called the debate amid continued pressure on the government over the future of tuition fees following a general election in which young voters flocked to Labour.
The maximum level of tuition fees was set at £3,000 a year under the last Labour government, which was increased to £9,000 from 2012 under the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government. This is now set to increase by a further £250 from the start of the next academic year.
Labour fought the last election on a pledge to abolish tuition fees altogether, at a cost of £11 billion a year, which would be paid for by increasing tax on high earners. The policy potentially contributed towards the surge in support for Labour among young voters in last month's general election, leaving the Conservatives fighting to defend the policy.
Asked whether there was any possibility of tuition fees being abolished under the current system, Johnson insisted the system is going nowhere.
"It works," he said. "It’s enabling more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university, it’s sharing the cost fairly between students and the general taxpayer."
Graduates have to start repaying tuition fees when they earn over £21,000 a year, with the debt written off if they fail to repay it within 30 years. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) think tank has calculated that three-quarters of students will ultimately fail to repay their loan in full, leaving the government to pick up the bill.
Johnson defended the decision to charge interest rates of up to 6.1% on tuition fee loans, despite anger from students. The average new graduate is set to rack up interest of £5,800 on debts of £45,000 by the time they finish their undergraduate degree, according to the IFS.
Johnson said "we always keep the system under review" but added: "6.1% is below the Bank of England reference rate for personal borrowing and doesn’t take into account that this loan is a heavily subsidised product."
"Better to think of it not as a loan but as a time-limited and income-linked graduate contribution," he went on.
"If you’re a younger person from a disadvantaged background this is going to make you more likely to go to university than you were in 2009/10," he said, arguing that tuition fees were preferable to placing a cap on the number of people who are able to go to university.
He also seized on an interview Corbyn gave to NME shortly before the election in which the Labour leader said he wanted to find a way to reduce the amount owed by students who have already finished their degrees under the £9,000-a-year system.
"I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden," Corbyn told the magazine. He later added: "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."
However, following the election Labour politicians have made clear this is merely an aspiration and they have no plans to do this, while Corbyn's team insist the comments were only ever meant as an ambition rather than a firm commitment.
Johnson claimed this showed students could not trust Labour.
“What we’re seeing from the Labour party in the last 48 hours is that their policy platform was always going to be undeliverable – the writing off of the student debt, the reinstatement of maintenance loans. Jeremy Corbyn told NME seven days before the election 'I will deal with it.'
"It's a real indictment of Labour to abandon a striking commitment to young people. Classic bait and switch."
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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