Liam Byrne is an MP and Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills, who hopes that after today he will be part of a new government. He became infamous for *that* note, when as the outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 2010 he wrote “Dear Chief Secretary, I’m afraid there is no money. Kind regards – and good luck! Liam”, but he hopes that what he describes as ‘typical political humour’ doesn’t mar Labour’s performance today. The Gryphon spoke to him to find out what he has on offer for University students.
Do you think it’s fair that all courses cost the same amount, despite Arts courses having fewer contact hours?
Well I think that all courses cost too much, and that’s why Labour are saying all course fees need to come down. What we want to do is then fully fund this, by asking some of the richer people in Britain to lose some of their pension tax relief. That gives us £3.1bn to support teaching and put up maintenance grants. What that will also allow us to do though is compensate universities for teaching high cost subjects, as at the moment there’s a massive disincentive for universities to teach STEM because they lose a lot of money on that. If you’ve got a £3.1bn pot each year for teaching, then we can put more incentive in to actually teach those subjects
But the courses would still all cost the same under a Labour government?
Possibly yes, but we want to bring the whole costs of our education down because it’s all too expensive.
Do you think it’s fair for Labour to be championed for cutting tuition fees? When labour were last elected university tuition fees didn’t even exist, so is there not a hint of hypocrisy?
That is something we’ve wrestled with. The most important thing is to make sure people don’t graduate with £44,000 worth of debt, and second to make a promise that we can actually deliver. I would love there to be free education, and I applaud those students involved in running the free education campaign, but we can’t make a promise we can’t deliver, were not going to do a Nick Clegg. One of the reasons I’m campaigning with Alex here in Leeds North West is so that students can send a message to Nick Clegg that he was wrong to break his promises, by voting out Greg Mulholland. Now I know that we can definitely deliver a cut in the next parliament and I definitely think that we can put up maintenance grants for over half of students. That’s a promise we can make and keep.
There are lots of students who the maintenance loan system gives the minimum loan, and that is often less than their rent, yet their parents can’t actually afford to subsidise them. Would you do anything for them or is it again a case of the same 50% that are always looked after get more help, yet the so-called squeezed middle continue to be ignored?
When I first got this job, Leeds is one of the first places I came to and I met the leaders of the students unions here and the big message was you’ve got to do something about maintenance costs. And so as part of our announcement here the other day I insisted that we include a big new rise on maintenance and so we put £200m extra into maintenance loans, so that everybody form households earning up to £42,500 will get a maintenance grant. That will be £400 minimum and will be for over half of students. We’ve again tried to do something that we can definitely deliver, and we recognise that there are a lot of students that don’t have the bank of mum and dad to go to, and they’re struggling with a couple of jobs already and they need extra help. The NUS tells us that on average students incur about £800 worth of bank debt over the course of their studies, so we think that putting £400 on the table for over half of students is not perfect, but for a lot of students will make a big difference and crucially we know we can do it.
Do Labour have any policy towards what UKIP label as ‘soft subjects’? Do you feel too many people go to university and that we should really push more apprenticeships?
Well I took Politics and Modern History, so could hardly judge what UKIP would call soft subjects! I think not enough people go to university, and that many more should actually go. However I think they should have a choice of how they do it. We want to create a state where there is not just an academic, but an apprenticeship based route into university. What we call ‘earn while you learn’ degrees, or ‘technical’ degrees. At the moment only 2% of apprentices get to go and study degree level skills, and that pathetic, I’d love it to be 50%. I think Arts are just as important as science, because what’s brilliant about our country is the way we marry together brilliant design and creativity with science and technology. That’s how we sparked the industrial revolution in this country, if you look at Mathew Boulton and James Watt back in the 1780s, they fused together design, creativity and new science, so you can’t just privilege one and not the other. Some people, and I think it was the CBR, said to us that we should just cut fees for STEM, but actually we think Arts are just as important.
Do you think that all universities should be allowed to charge the top bracket for fees? When this government increased tuition fees they said fees limit would be £9000, but only the elite institutions like Oxford and Cambridge would charge the maximum, yet now we have over 90% charging the top fees, would this continue under Labour?
Well that was ridiculous wasn’t it? Our first step is to bring the total cap down. We think there are a number of places and courses that can charge less. For a lot of students actually being able to start your degree at your local college is a much more attractive option, and at the moment there’s not enough provision of higher education in our great colleges like Leeds City College. There needs to be more.
If the student loans system is, as Labour of say, broken, and people aren’t paying it back, how are you going to fix it? Will you ‘fixing it’ mean graduates simply have to pay more back, more quickly?
Graduates will pay back less, because we aren’t going to muck about with repayment thresholds and that sort of thing. The key thing that were doing is that were making the system more sustainable for the future, because three quarters of students currently don’t pay their loans back and the system is going bust. £280bn will be added to the national debt by 2030 if we don’t do anything. So we’re making it more affordable, and we’re also bringing in £3.1bn a year from Britain’s richer citizens.
So how does that work, surely you either make the loans system make more money back, or you help the students?
We’re bringing in £3.1bn in extra taxes off the richest in Britain to put directly into teaching, and that allows us to bring the loan costs down. So it’s an extra subsidy for higher education from those on over £150,000 a year, meaning we can do both at the same time.
Will there still be the repayment threshold meaning you only pay your loan back when earning £21,000 a year, or would we be paying back as soon as we get employed?
We will keep the repayment threshold where it is, I promise that.