Education Secretary Justine Greening has defended a potentially costly pledge to freeze tuition fees as she dismissed accusations that the Government has abandoned its commitment to fiscal responsibility in a bid to woo young voters.
Speaking to the Yorkshire Post at the Conservative conference in Manchester, the Rotherham-born MP argued that the decision to cap fees at £9,250 next year is instead a sign that the Conservative approach to the economy is paying off.
She also outlined further details of how her department intends to spend part of the £70m fund set aside for investment in Northern schools.
This was announced alongside a raft of new housing measures, including a £10bn expansion of the Help to Buy scheme.
Theresa May has already sent a strong signal that she wants her Government’s offer to young people to be a core theme of this week’s conference.
Speaking ahead of the four-day event, the Conservative leader insisted that she had listened to concerns raised by younger voters during the election, and was more determined than ever “to act on those concerns”.
This position was solidified yesterday when Ms Greening announced plans to put a brake on a £250 increase to tuition fees next year. She also confirmed that the Government will raise the income threshold for repaying these fees – from £21,000 to £25,000.
Opponents were quick to criticise the proposals, accusing the Tories of mimicking Labour’s pledge to scrap fees and find ways to minimise the debt already accrued by graduates.
They also pointed out that the Tories had attacked these plans – as well as Labour’s promise to end the public sector pay cap – as financially inviable.
However, in an interview with regional journalists, Ms Greening said she “strongly disagreed” with the suggestion that the party was abandoning its record of economic restraint.
“What this shows is [that] responsible financial management of the economy is how you make sure you’ve got the funds to invest in our public services,” she said.
“We have focussed on running a strong economy that has created 3 million jobs. The benefits of that are not just the dignity of work... we also have a stronger public finances.”
She went on to claim that the policy “highlights the difference between Labour and the Conservative party”. “What labour was saying to young people was to scrap tuition fees. That would have been a massively regressive measure,” she said.
“If [university] is free, then fewer people can go... That is no way to drive social mobility.”
The Education Secretary also unveiled plans to invest £12m in establishing a new network of language and literacy “hubs” in Northern schools, with the money being drawn from a £70m pot earmarked for the Government’s Northern Powerhouse Schools Strategy. This is in addition to a £6m investment in a series of maths hubs, which encourage schools to work together to drive up standards.
And she offered a fresh defence of the Government’s academies programme, amid concerns about the future of schools affected by the collapse of the Wakefield City Academies Trust.
“I absolutely recognise the concerns that people have had at a local level. We will not tolerate schools that don’t do their best for pupils, that’s why we’re stepping in to make sure that these schools get re-brokered,” she told this paper.
“Overall, our country has seen a steady shift in the numbers of schools that Ofsted is rating good or outstanding... but we are determined to make sure that we focus on the remaining schools that aren’t.”