Key questions for Labour and its higher education policy

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One of the reasons for Labour’s unexpectedly strong showing in the election was the party’s relative and very real effectiveness in managing the election news cycle around its policy priorities. The party’s policy and press teams had got their act together in time for the early election, in sharp contrast to the Tories’ own media machine and indeed to where Labour was at only a year or so ago.

As a result, the public became familiar with Labour’s generous suite of policies, the most expensive (and perhaps most prominent) of which was abolishing tuition fees. The proposal sparked a round of debate in the broadsheet columns and on social media about the relative merits of tuition fees, graduate taxes and the rest of it.

But for those who work in the sector and interested in the next level of policy detail, Labour’s position has been ambiguous at best. The existence or non-existence of tuition fees raises big questions about the future of universities’ relationship with the state that go beyond just funding.

In contrast to last year’s Labour Party Conference, the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street and Angela Rayner heading up Sanctuary Building on Great Smith Street in 2022 (or perhaps earlier) are very real. Therefore Labour’s higher education policy position deserves scrutiny beyond the merits of abolishing tuition fees.

There are a couple of areas aside from tuition fees where we know how Labour stand. Student support and maintenance would be more generous than it is now, with grants reintroduced and bursaries reinstated for NHS students. And despite the party’s manifesto being ambiguously worded on the issue, it is fairly safe to assume Labout would be more supportive of growing international student numbers.

Accompanying her speech to the conference, Rayner published a set of ten principles that would guide Labour’s plans for a ‘National Education Service’. The ideological ambition behind these principles is admirable as it is extensive and begins to give us a clue as to how Labour might seek to reform universities beyond the matter of fees and finance.

So here are seven areas that the universities sector will no doubt be pressing the Labour party on as the next election draws near.

1. Undergraduate number controls

The abolition of student number controls – phased in from 2012 to 2015 – has arguably had a far more profound effect on UK universities than the trebling of tuition fees to £9,000. Indeed, the two are intrinsically linked. The abolition of number controls has enabled the full-time undergraduate numbers to expand and widen participation through sheer volume, a prime defence of the current fees system rolled out by its defenders. More importantly, the free market has forced universities – particularly those in middle and lower tariff bands – into ruthless competition for applicants.

There are three groups of institutions as a result of this cutthroat fight for new entrants. Winners, primarily higher tariff institutions that have chosen rapid expansion, are comfortable financially, recruiting new staff, and able to borrow on generous terms to invest in shiny new facilities. Survivors, primarily mid tariff institutions, have seen perhaps modest expansion or fluctuations year to year, and every August nervously watch their recruitment figures to see if they meet targets. And then there are the outright losers, several of whom have seen dramatic reductions in recruitment even before the ‘applicant squeeze’ that we’ve seen this year and despite ever more inventive marketing designed to entice students in. The losers and even many ‘survivors’ keeping their head above water have been forced to make cuts to make ends meet. It may not be long before some institutions have to consider more radical measures if they are to survive at all.

Unless John McDonnell does discover that magic money tree, the return of teaching grants is incompatible with the absence of student number controls. But if controls were reinstated, would it simply be a reversion to the pre-2012 system? Would universities that have expanded aggressively in recent years be forced to ‘share’ with those who have lost out? The question of student numbers, in turn, is vital to understanding the implications for other areas of policy.

2. Widening participation and fair access

As the Scottish government has discovered, it is very hard to generate positive headline figures on widening participation when student numbers are fixed. Controlled student numbers turn widening access into a zero-sum game; for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to get in, some from more advantaged backgrounds must necessarily lose out. A radical left-wing Labour government may be the only political party with the courage to see this through – not even the SNP has dared to do so in Scotland – but what policy levers it might use to level out access outcomes, particularly at the most prestigious universities, is unclear. A lack of action, however, will only see the abolition of tuition fees likely squeeze out the least advantaged from accessing places.

The other question is what would happen to the ‘OFFA countable industry’. Currently, universities seeking to charge fees over £6,000 must spend roughly one-third of their fee income above that on widening access and participation activities such as outreach, student support, bursaries, scholarships, and fee waivers. This is £725 million of business, with countless activities and hundreds of jobs in universities dedicated to it. While its combined effects are disputed, Labour has not made it clear whether it would expect universities to continue this work, or reorganise or regulate it in a different way.

By taking the bold step to abolish fees, a Labour government would expect to see some good news stories on widening access to justify their policy. But this is by no means inevitable without some hard thinking about the challenges in making higher education participation more equitable – abolishing fees and reinstating grants will not be even close to enough.

3. The Higher Education and Research Act, and regulators

We have just concluded a year of what felt like an interminable Parliamentary debate to pass the Higher Education and Research Act, the first of its kind for 25 years. The Act effectively aligns university regulation with the post-teaching grants era, remodelling the English funding council into a market regulator with sharper teeth and a ‘level playing field’ for market entry from new higher education providers. But it also made universities nervous about the future of their perceived ‘autonomy’ from the government.

In 2022 this new regulator will barely be four years old, but a reintroduction of teaching grants and number controls would (presumably) transform its prime function back to those of HEFCE from 1992 to 2012. The new regulatory structure which it will have designed will be based upon the assumptions of a competitive market, and a student-as-consumer relationship with universities.

New primary legislation would almost certainly be required to reform the funding council or to amend the aims and objectives of the Office for Students, around a very different set of principles.

4. Regulation and professionalism

Perhaps even more fundamental than the organisation and branding of the regulator (or funding council) would be the regulatory philosophy on which it would be built. Public service management is perhaps the area we know least about among Labour’s intentions, despite the party’s platform being built around growing the public and state sector.

The draft charter for the NES states that appropriate accountability will be balanced against giving “genuine freedom of judgement and innovation”. This appears to be along the lines of what OfS chair (and HE Power List topper) Michael Barber calls a ‘trust and altruism’ approach to service delivery, of the kind favoured by most public sector unions but long squeezed out of the culture of public administration. It would involve dismantling market mechanisms and other performance management structure in favour of greater autonomy for teachers, civil servants, doctors, and yes perhaps academics as well. We know that UCU has a reliable line to the current shadow education team, particularly on the details of the recent higher education reforms. Would the NES mean the end of TEF? The end of REF? And what the future of ‘co-regulation’ in quality?

5. Autonomy

While the renewed commitment to professional autonomy will no doubt be welcomed by those who resent the trend towards more stringent performance management, the NES charter might raise some nerves about institutional autonomy. It states that public institutions within the National Education Service “should be rooted in their communities” and “communities empowered, via appropriate democratic means, to “influence change where it is needed and ensure that the education system meets their needs”.

As universities in Scotland have found in recent years, with greater public funding comes greater public (and political) responsibility. A generous, de-marketised, publically funded higher education system should not be expected to be given to the sector for free. New accountabilities, either to local communities or national governments, will no doubt be expected of a Labour administration that would not be afraid to use the strong arm of the state to achieve its aims.

Universities’ exact relationship with the NES is at this stage ambiguous, with only schools and colleges explicitly mentioned in the draft charter. An interesting parallel might be the experience of hospitals and healthcare providers taken into the NHS by Labour in the 1940s – professionals long used to a degree of autonomy did not take greater state intervention in their work very lightly.

6. Devolution

The championing of free tuition by the national leadership of the Labour Party contrasts sharply with the position taken by Welsh Labour which is currently in government in Wales, Its own higher education policy is being implemented by Liberal Democrat Kirsty Williams, but the Welsh party has sided with a trebling of tuition fees as part of a grand bargain involving significantly more generous maintenance support. A plan for reformed sector governance and regulation is also underway. When pressed on this divergence during the election campaign by Plaid Cymru, Jeremy Corbyn insisted that the free tuition policy would apply to Wales, but quite how he would reconcile this with Carwyn Jones’ government is unclear. The national party’s higher education policy may nominally only apply to England, but it would surely have an impact on higher education across the UK.

7. Beyond HE

Though tuition fees may be a totemic issue for Corbyn and much of the middle-class Labour left, Rayner’s prime interest in her brief – influenced by her working-class background – is in early years and further education policy. The NES aspires to be a “cradle to grave” service, which will no doubt lend a focus towards forms of post-compulsory education other than full-time undergraduate study. Rayner only mentioned higher education twice in her speech.

The election manifesto promised to set up “a Commission on Lifelong Learning tasked with integrating further and higher education”. This perhaps implies a move towards a merger of higher and further education regulation oversight, as in Scotland and Wales, and adds further questions to those about institutional autonomy raised above.

Having cake and eating it?

Labour was incredibly popular with staff and students in the higher education sector in this year’s election. Rayner’s ambitious vision for a National Education Service will be music to the ears of those who have long opposed the growth of both marketisation and aggressive accountability in universities under successive Labour and Conservative governments. The vision outlined in the charter resonates with the positions long held by NUS, UCU, or the Council for the Defence of British Universities, whose activists are strongly attached to the Corbyn project.

But the extent to which greater state funding might also lead to greater state interference is still up for question. By becoming an undoubtedly public service under a Labour government, universities would become permanently more victim to the political winds and whims of future governments from both main parties.

Some may argue that this is a price worth paying for higher education as a public good. Others may not be so sure.

2 thoughts on “Key questions for Labour and its higher education policy”

  1. Jonathan Woodhead says:

    A good piece David. Gordon Marsden said at the conference he didn’t think number controls were inevitable when introducing free tuition. However a further area he has neglected is part-time and ELQ students. Will fees be scrapped entirely for PT students and can those that already hold a UG qualification take further high-level qualifications at no cost to themselves? A bit of clarity would be great on this issue.

  2. John says:

    Struggling to get beyond “the free market has forced universities into ruthless competition for applicants” and then “Unless John McDonnell does discover that magic money tree … “. But mostly demotivated by the thought that this piece is a sad reflection on how politicised debate can replace considered thinking. Surely, you can do better than this wonkhe?

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