Sir Keir Starmer is facing criticism after confirming that Labour is set to “move on” from his commitment to abolish tuition fees.
It becomes the latest pledge dropped by the Labour leader, with Sir Keir pointing to the “different financial situation” as the reason behind the latest shift.
The move was criticised by the University and College Union (UCU), which labelled the decision “deeply disappointing”.
“We are looking at options for how we fund these fees. The current system is unfair, it doesn’t really work for students, doesn’t work for universities,” Sir Keir told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday.
“We are likely to move on from that commitment because we do find ourselves in a different financial situation.”
He stressed that he did not “want that to be read as us accepting for a moment that the current system is fair or that it is working”.
Confirmation of plans to drop the commitment, contained in the party’s’ two previous manifestos, came following months of speculation that Sir Keir was considering moving on from the pledge.
The Labour leader did not spell out what plan or policies would replace the current stance but told the programme: “You and others would be quizzing me hard if I just simply said I’m going to ignore the current economic situation and just press on with something, notwithstanding the cost.”
Tuition fees sit at a maximum of £9,250, with the current system introduced by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition in the face of severe opposition from students.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady called on the Labour leader to offer a “positive vision” for universities.
She said: “Keir Starmer repeatedly pledged to abolish the toxic system of tuition fees and in doing so was elected leader of the Labour Party.
“It is deeply disappointing for him to now be reneging on that promise, a move which would condemn millions of future students to a life of debt.
“What we really need is a positive vision for higher education that puts staff and students first.
“The current, tuition fee reliant model is broken. It has saddled students with decades of debt, turned universities from sites of learning into labyrinthine businesses obsessed with generating revenue and surpluses over all else, and led to staff pay and working conditions being degraded, causing unprecedented industrial unrest.
“The country desperately needs a publicly-funded higher education system.”
A poll, of more than 1,000 full-time UK undergraduate students in April, suggests that students in England are split on what Labour should do about tuition fees.
The Higher Education Policy Institute survey, carried out by Savanta, found that 28% of students living in England want Labour to commit to abolishing tuition fees in England, 23% want the party to reduce fees to £6,000, and 20% want Labour to back the current system of fees capped at £9,250.
Sir Keir has claimed he remains committed to the “vast majority” of the pledges, but parts of the Labour left have criticised his move away from his promise in 2019 to support “common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water”.
Under his leadership, Labour has set out plans for a publicly-owned energy company called Great British Energy but one said he was not “ideological” about the policy of nationalisation.
He and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves have also appeared to distance themselves from plans to raise income tax, despite Sir Keir’s former pledge to raise “income tax for the top 5% of earners”.
On Tuesday the Holborn and St Pancras MP said “those with the broadest shoulders should pay more”, but said the reality was that households are currently facing the highest tax burden since the Second World War.