(It’s) Hard Labour?

Labour’s 2015 position on higher education policy – of all the three main political parties – is still probably the hardest to predict. But this is not necessarily because of the affordability of a £6k or even a £5k fee (the IPPR costed it at nearly £2billion up front – even more for a graduate tax – an awful lot to spend in a cash constrained election).

But Labour’s big decision to make on higher education isn’t whether they lower the fee or introduce a graduate tax – it’s whether they want to make higher education one of their major policy ideas in the general election. If they still think – as Ed Miliband clearly did when he trailed the 2011 party conference with the £6k fee idea – that HE is a totemic issue then they may still be prepared to invest resource and political capital in it.

So the real question to ask is whether changing the current tuition fee and financial support system will deliver the electoral return that other policies might.  If they don’t believe that – and the NHS, social care and primary school places all look higher up the agenda – then we should probably expect something much more pragmatic from the Labour manifesto.

Arguably a reduction in the headline fee might be less appealing now than two years ago. Going to university now looks less of a political dividing line for the ‘squeezed middle’ with numbers of applicants and students looking like bouncing back for 2013/14. It is much harder to say that tripling fees will deter applicants – especially amongst the disadvantaged – when that no longer appears to be the case. Any more nuanced position around part time decline or about long term sustainability risks a level of complexity that may be lost on the doorstep and in the media.

Economic competence and deficit reduction still look bigger issues for Labour and sticking to Coalition spending plans for 2015-16 and beyond in turn may make it more likely that Labour will stick to the new HE tuition and funding regime.

And of course the sector will be suspicious of a reduced fee as they will inevitably expect reduced income at some point as a result. The IPPR also calculate that on current spending plans, HE can expect to see their overall budget reduced by over £1 billion before 2017. Few will want to be at the mercy of the Treasury – whether under Balls, Osborne or anybody else. So however unhappy they might be (or might have been) with the tuition fee reforms most universities will now take some weaning off the £9k regime.

Labour also has its tensions within a ‘more means worse’ world. The 50% target for participation in HE and a liking for supply side human capital targets are much less popular than before the 2007/8 crash. Both have been virtually abandoned even if they aren’t quite yet in the list of things ‘that Labour should apologise for’. Though if you read (or write for) the Daily Mail or the Telegraph your might beg to differ. Ed Miliband led last year’s Labour Conference with an appeal to and for, the ‘other 50%’. Even the Observer weighed in during the August A Level results season and recommended an end to the ‘massification’ of HE. So there is probably as much likelihood of a debate in Labour circles about access to the best as of participation by the many…

This like other possible positions might focus on what I would call ‘micro policy’ – or that which the sector (students, universities, agencies and organisations like us) are likely to investigate and interrogate in some detail – mergers of regulators, additional bursaries and so on. Such issues are very important but unlikely to figure in doorstep conversations or in national political debate.

So it seems increasingly unlikely that there will be any guarantees of expansion or of political differentiation – at least not in the short term. Dividing lines are getting much harder to find. Not even in science funding where the Labour government made significant political running and investment in the past. So neither tuition fees nor science or industrial policy look like a way of Labour getting more votes. And the less chance of that, the less chance they will commit to big spending commitments even if Ed Miliband and others consider it the right thing to do.

More likely then might be a combination of short term pragmatism with some detailed measures and a longer term promise of reform – sticking with the current system for now but with a commitment to additional investment (and reform) towards the end of the parliament. Perhaps even a further review into how to finance higher education sustainably and more fairly over the longer term? In time this is where change will really matter as the current system does look unsustainable and unaffordable pretty quickly. Considering that properly and at the right time is more likely to get a better long term result than a short term political solution that – after all is said and done – might only secure a precious few votes in 2015.

2 responses to “(It’s) Hard Labour?

  1. Here’s another problem for any new government: rather than reduce fee levels, will some HEIs decide to pull out of the state sector entirely? Faced with a significant drop in fee income, it is inevitable that some senior academics will start to give serious thought to alternatives. So a new government will have to think about the alternative options, and in particular to persuading a small but influential group of VCs that their future lies in the public sector. The Scottish Government has pulled this off, but at a huge price – they protected HE budgets, but slashed the FE budget, which is not the most sensible strategy at a time of recession. So funding and steering higher education is likely to become what some like to call a ‘wicked problem’, easily defined but not so easily solved.

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