The party vowed to abolish university fees in its manifesto. But just days before the election, Corbyn appeared to hint at plans to wipe out tuition fee debt for thousands of recent university-leavers too - winning widespread acclaim from students and graduates across the country.
Acknowledging the “massive debt” accrued by those who started studying after £9,000 fees were introduced, he said he was looking at ways “we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden”.
Corbyn continued: “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.”
But shadow chancellor McDonnell sparked fury on Sunday by “backtracking” on Corbyn’s comments, saying it was only ever an “ambition”.
According to Angela Rayner, Labour’s education secretary, it would cost an estimated £100 billion to scrap graduate debt.
When asked on The Andrew Marr Show whether the Labour Party would pay off this “historical” debt, McDonnell said: “We will look at what we can do. It’s a real ambition that we have got.”
Pressed further over the issue, McDonnell added: “Let me just be clear. What we said in our manifesto was that we will scrap tuition fees - we will scrap tuition fees.
“If we can deal with the debt, we certainly will do.
“And what we have said very, very clearly is, because the system is collapsing, to be frank, whoever is in government has got to tackle this.”
One man wrote on social media of McDonnell’s comments: “The Tories should repeat this clip for weeks, months and years to expose the reality of Labour’s promises to students.”
Conservative education secretary Justine Greening told The Times: “Jeremy Corbyn and Labour have not been honest with young people. During the election campaign Mr Corbyn promised students he would wipe out tuition fee loans, at a cost of £100 billion.
“Now his chief lieutenants have U-turned on this commitment and young people will see it as a betrayal.”
Many people have since vented their anger over the comments on Twitter.
However, some Labour supporters have hit back by denying that Corbyn ever pledged to wipe graduate debt, pointing out that only the scrapping of tuition fees was included in the party’s election manifesto:
A Labour spokesperson said: “Labour’s manifesto pledged to scrap tuition fees from 2018 and write off the first year of fees for students starting university this September, so that no one is priced out of getting a degree.
“During the campaign, we also said we would protect graduates from above inflation interest rate rises on existing debt and look for ways to ameliorate this debt burden in future.”