In an article titled “Ten Years Ahead” for Research Fortnight, Gordon says Labour’s higher education policy is long-term—unlike the Tories.
As we approach our party conference with a general election looming, the differences between Labour and the government over higher education policy are stark.
We are focused on the challenges that are quickly coming our way—whether through the changing world of work, automation, Brexit or competition from across the world. Through our National Education Service (NES) and Lifelong Learning Commission we are determined to produce a system fit for the 21st Century.
Our message on higher education and access is clear: nobody should miss out on the chance to gain higher qualifications at either university or college because of cost. That is why we have outlined an alternative: ending tuition fees so future generations entering higher education will not be penalised with exorbitant debt.
We believe both higher and further education should be free at the point of use and have provided for this with a fully funded approach and costing to sustain it. This would enhance social mobility and widen participation and retention for existing students and counter fears that might inhibit future learners.
And we recognise it is not just about fees; it is also about costs while at university. Continued rent rises, high interest rates on loans that the government continues to hold at 5.4%, and the need to undertake part-time work put growing pressure on students, with consequences for their studies.
Our longstanding commitment is to reintroduce the maintenance grant recklessly removed by a previous Tory government, and in government we would focus relentlessly on other ways to relieve the financial pressures on students too, particularly on those from lower income backgrounds.
Improving social equality and social justice in higher education underpins every principle of our NES. This also now includes our recent pledge to move towards post-qualification admissions, alongside looking further into a system of contextual admissions.
It contrasts with the way Department for Education ministers have continued to stumble on with an outdated framework of competition and marketisation, oblivious to the uncertainty facing institutions— many of which are now in financial difficulty—and failing to halt the collapse of part-time and adult learning.
During our debates with government on the higher education bill we warned persistently about the problems with new for-profit providers being allowed to take university status from day one. But this was ignored and now we are seeing longstanding private institutions such as GSM London, under scrutiny from the Office for Students, also fail.
This blows a hole in government’s attempts to open up higher education to private providers at the most stressful time possible for universities—made worse by increasing financial issues at many; nearly one in four universities in England was in deficit last year.
Too often Tory government views of higher and further education have been based on the concept of education as simply a commodity—a private consumable to be pursued more often by competition than collaboration—rather than a public good.
That is why a Labour government would revise the duty of the Office for Students to promote competition, implemented by the previous government, and replace it with a duty to promote collaboration, both between universities and between universities and other parts of the education system.
This is reflected in the principles of our NES and our Lifelong Learning Commission to ensure educational structures are fit for purpose— for the UK economy and learners and for the UK’s international standing—as the mix of digital, online and other kinds of connectivity between vocational, higher and further education evolves.
This means that rather than being forced to compete, institutions will be encouraged to work collaboratively and for the long-term good of the local and national economy and the communities they serve.
A Labour government will remain passionate about the principles of upholding academic freedom and autonomy in higher education. But it will also have laser-like focus on the pressures of mental health and other challenges facing students, while offering a new deal for disadvantaged groups, many of whom have, for too long, been shut out.
Higher education in the Community
We would look particularly closely at the place of higher education institutions in their communities and at the economic balance they can provide, in line with the renewed interest in civic universities explored recently by the commission headed by Bob Kerslake, former head of the civil service.
We also recognise the need for a new deal for those who teach, work and manage in our higher education communities and so will prioritise finding clearer and more secure pathways for staff at all levels through continuous professional development.
This collaboration must extend into lifelong learning, which will be a significant focus of a Labour government. This means a major boost to the adult and part-time sectors wilfully neglected by consecutive Conservative-led governments.
As a former Open University tutor, I am hugely concerned about how this has stalled the life chances and development of so many of the type of adult learners I used to work with and teach.
Since our independent Lifelong Learning Commission was launched in February by the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and our shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, our 14 expert commissioners, drawn widely across the whole world of higher and further education and skills, have been working on a report that will help shape the direction of post-18 education for the next 10-15 years, into the 2030s.
This commission will chart an ambitious future, integrating higher and further education into a unifying framework with inclusive pathways into the learning process. This means government being an enabler not a micromanager, working both locally and nationally with civil society, trade unions, employers, higher and further education institutions and other training and skills providers. Having a system in place to engage and enable people to retrain and upskill at every stage of life, meeting every challenge of our ever-changing workforce.
Finally, universities can expect a Labour Party that is committed to the UK’s continued participation in the key EU programmes. We must protect our involvement in vital research groups, such as Horizon, and the life changing opportunities offered through the Erasmus+ scheme to higher—but also further—education students.
Universities UK has been explicit that a no-deal exit from the EU would be bad for students, researchers and its 136 member universities. That is why we have been so adamant that we must do all we can to prevent it.
Unfortunately, both the May and Johnson government responses to the problems facing higher education from Brexit have been lacklustre and have failed to look beyond the present, leaving the pages for the 2020s blank and the future of tens of thousands of learners and scores of university institutions at risk.
This sums up the contrast between us and the government. While they try to decide what to do about the Augar report and struggle to patch and mend, looking ahead just 10-15 months, we are setting out our strategic thinking and a concerted vision of a new system to take us through the next 10-15 years.
Gordon Marsden is the Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Further Education and Skills.