As we approach a possible general election this year, Labour is laying out a spread of policies designed to appeal to young voters and graduates who might otherwise be at risk of defecting to parties with a clearer position against Brexit. While Johnson appeals to law and order with the promise of more bobbies on the beat, Corbyn proffers free university.
Over the past few weeks, Labour has stitched together its promises into a policy platform centred around access to education, recently focusing on lifelong learning, “eye-watering” student debt and post-qualification admissions.
Labour’s current higher education offerings
Labour would abolish tuition fees, on the basis that student debt is a huge burden, especially in the context of increasing interest rates
Labour would develop a “National Education Service”
Labour would introduce a post-qualification admissions system by the end of its first parliament
Under Labour, the Office for Students (OfS) would work harder to improve gender and ethnic diversity across UK universities, enforce a 20:1 pay ratio between the highest and lowest paid members of staff and protect institutions from bankruptcy – in contrast to OfS chair Michael Barber’s announcement at last year’s Wonkfest that the regulator would not bail out struggling higher education providers.
On 31 July, Labour released the interim report for its Lifelong Learning Commission which develops plans for a National Education Service offering “cradle-to-grave” learning. The report is ambitious in scope and broadly convincing in its analysis of current challenges: it makes clear that a National Education Service would need to respond to workplaces changed by automation and globalisation. The report also demands more investment in further education in comparison with higher education – a recommendation we’ve seen from numerous sources now, not least the Augar review. Notably, the report recommends the development of a national information, advice and guidance service to tie together and promote lifelong learning entitlements. The commission is seeking input into the review’s final report, which is expected in September ahead of or around party conferences.
This week, Labour has also returned to the theme of graduate indebtedness arising from the current government’s higher education funding policies. Graduates on Twitter might scroll past Labour’s pink and bouncy video with an ominous if slightly disingenuous warning: “the interest you pay on your student loan is about to double”. In fact, the post-2012 interest rate will drop from 6.3 to 5.4 per cent from September. But the video elaborates: government figures indicate that the total interest charged on loans will double over five years, from £3.5bn in 2018-19 to £7.6bn in 2024. The Augar report’s critique of graduate debt might provoke a response in the one-year spending review, perhaps in the form of cuts to interest rates or a more radical conversion of maintenance loans back to grants. Or perhaps this will be pushed to a future spending review period, and we now know from Labour’s recent announcements that they would make this a priority.
Labour then announced its plan to end university offers based on predicted exam results in favour of implementing a post-qualification admissions system. Here, Labour makes clear the party’s support for less advantaged students, in particular students from minority and disadvantaged backgrounds who are more likely to have their grades under-predicted, according to a 2011 government report. Labour is jumping on the admissions bandwagon: OfS has been asked to review university admissions, and Universities UK is conducting its own review. The interest in a relatively arcane aspect of higher education policy (as compared with, say, tuition fees) paints an intriguing picture of how a Labour government might approach policymaking in education.
Why these policies and why now?
Labour’s Lifelong Learning Commission’s report encompasses an education-focused articulation of “for the many not the few”, Labour’s slogan. A national education service appeals to young, debt-averse voters and to older, guilty voters who benefited from a free education and are now members of the University of the Third Age. The report also appeals to all voters protective of the NHS through its rhetorical insistence on “cradle-to-grave”, and voters across the political spectrum identified by a recent report by centre-right think tank Onward, which claimed that voters’ priorities may be shifting away from liberal individualism with an emphasis on personal freedom in favour of a government that will protect them and focus on building communities. A national education service represents potential protection from the turmoil of globalisation and automation, and a plea for coherence and stability at a turbulent time.
These three announcements have set the stage for a general election in which the student vote is believed, once again, to be decisive: Labour has dismissed the current government’s higher education policies, established an ideological framework for its own policy in the form of the Lifelong Learning Commission’s report, and produced a single specific policy (PQA) which it hopes demonstrates a commitment to a widening access agenda.