Jeremy Corbyn didn’t commit to abolishing student debt before the last election, although he did say he would “deal with” the high debts of graduates and was looking at ways to do so.
The official Labour policy for existing graduates was that they would be protected from above inflation interest rate rises on existing debt and Labour would “look for ways to ameliorate this debt burden in future.” This policy was not mentioned in the party’s manifesto.
Mr Corbyn did say in an interview with NME magazine a week before the 2017 general election that he was “looking at” ways to reduce, ameliorate, or lengthen the period of time that “those that currently have a massive debt” have to pay it off. He also said he didn’t “have a simple answer for it at this stage”.
Those who didn’t see the detail of Mr Corbyn’s comments may have got a stronger impression from some of the wider news headlines. The Times reported “Labour promises to write off graduate debt”, and iNews reported “Jeremy Corbyn: Labour will write off graduate debt”—specifying in the detail of the article that it was something Mr Corbyn had “suggested”.
Other Labour figures during the election campaign did hint that abolishing—as opposed to reducing—debt was the policy.
What Jeremy Corbyn said
During the interview Mr Corbyn is quoted as saying:
“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether ...
“We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it.
“Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and 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 ...
“I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem ...
“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.”
Some Labour figures have sown confusion about the policy
Both Jeremy Corbyn and the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, said in interviews after the election that abolishing student debt was never promised, but that it was a “real ambition”. The Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner, also told MPs that this was never the promise.
During the election, however, some Labour figures seemed to have sown confusion about the policy.
Labour’s shadow justice minister Imran Hussain said in a video that “every existing student will have all their debts wiped off”. Another shadow minister, Sharon Hodgson, tweeted that “Labour could write off historic student debts| All those in early 20's with student debt”.
The first doesn’t say that graduates would also have their debts wiped off, and the second doesn’t say the pledge is a certainty. Nevertheless, compared to Mr Corbyn’s “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”, both interventions could have given voters the wrong idea about what was being promised.