It’s not exactly breaking news. But 13 years after it was written a letter by George Osborne to one of his then constituents is being widely shared on social media.
In the letter Mr Osborne wrote passionately about his opposition to the £3,000 a year university tuition fees introduced by the Labour government of the day. “Very unfair” and a “tax on learning” were two of the phrases used by Mr Osborne – then only two years into his role as a Conservative MP for Tatton – to describe the charges.
He added: “I thought you would be interested to know that the Conservatives have just announced that we will scrap tuition fees altogether when we are next in government. Education will once again be free for students.”
By 2012 he clearly felt differently. Then as the British chancellor of the exchequer, he oversaw an increase in the fees to £9,000 a year.
The recipient of the 2003 letter was Rosy Williams, to whom Mr Osborne wrote that there was “lots of evidence that it is the fear of going in to debt that puts people from poorer backgrounds off going to university.” .
This week Ms Williams rediscovered the letter in an old box of papers and posted a scan of it on Facebook, where it has been shared thousands on times.
Ms Williams told the Guardian that when she received the letter she was 17-year-old, “I was about to leave school and it was all very relevant.”
She told the newspaper that she had studied drama for a year, and later did a year-long postgraduate course in violin for which she paid £6,000 in tuition fees. She said that she had hoped to pursue those studies for longer but wasn’t able to because of the cost.
“I do think it’s outrageous the amount of money people have to pay now,” she said. “It’s astronomical. It means that some people just can’t do it.
A spokesman for Mr Osborne said: “It is a matter of public record that the Conservative party were against tuition fees in 2003.
“Nearly 10 years later in 2012 when the government introduced the new funding system for universities the economic situation had changed and we needed to put universities on a strong, sustainable financial footing.”
The emergence of the 13-year-old letter has been cited by some on social media as evidence of a politician breaking his promises, others have pointed out that it was written before the start of the 2008 economic crash and that many people had shifted their opinion on tuition fees in the intervening years. The National Union of Students dropped its total opposition to tuition fees in 2008.
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The letter surfaced on Monday around the time the current Conservative government’s published its latest higher education white paper. Under the plans universities will be allowed to increase annual fees in line with inflation from next year.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday, the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said students today were more in debt than ever, adding Labour would not support raising tuition fees.
Borrowing some of Mr Osborne’s own language from 2003 he branded it a “tax on learning”, adding: “What an insult to the aspirations of young people wanting an education. We are deeply concerned about the implications for a free market, free for all in higher education.”
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