Labour rules out new HE funding policy

New shadow higher education, further education and skills minister Gordon Marsden says the Labour party will not establish a new HE policy until after it conducts a policy review across departments.

Marsden, appearing at a Labour conference fringe organised by Million+, LabourList and the National Union of Students, said Labour is “in listening mode” in HE as well as in other policy areas.

“We are reviewing all of our policies in every area as every sensible political party that has suffered a general election defeat in the way that we have does. We will be looking at everything. Nothing is ruled in, nothing is ruled out.

Marsden, however, reassured the 60-strong audience that, despite focussing on drawing up a new higher education policy, Labour would nonetheless keep a close eye on the government’s universities policy.

“We are embarking on deep thought and deep conversations, but that is not an excuse for not holding this government to account. We will hold the government to account on teaching quality and a green paper on marketisation. We will make sure that the debate about teaching quality does not become a trojan horse for fee increases or creating an apartheid between universities that teach and universities that research”.

NUS President Megan Dunn, also on the panel, questioned why students should be paying more for teaching of a high quality: “To say that you should have to pay more for excellent teaching is not something that I think we would ever support.”

Marsden, a former Open University tutor, also said he sees HE “in continuum” between full time and part time [education]”. He also repeatedly emphasised that “the world is changing enormously”.

Marsden’s non-committal stance on fees was welcomed by fellow panellist Professor Dave Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University and Chair of million+, who told Wonkhe after the event: “It’s better that the Labour Party is taking time to review higher education and science policy on a more holistic basis rather than jumping to a predetermined conclusion based solely on undergraduate full-time tuition fees and funding.”

Another panellist, Paul Blomfield, the Sheffield Central MP and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on higher education, drew attention to the estimated £10 billion cost of removing fees and replacing maintenance loans with grants.

Dunn said that Labour had a real opportunity to demonstrate a “holistic view of HE”. Speaking after the event, she told Wonkhe: “I’m not sure you could expect too much a couple of weeks after the election after a new leader.

It provides an exciting opportunity. It’s a really good chance for us as NUS, but also for the sector, to shape what the future of higher education looks like”.

“I think there’s a recognition that what was offered by Labour in the last election, while a step in the right direction, was part of the ‘retail offer’ that’s been talked about at this conference. What does it mean to have a more holistic view of not just higher education but how the HE and FE sectors interact.

“I also think Labour has to recognise there are some real and immediate challenges that they have to help us face: cuts to maintenance grants, freezing of repayment thresholds and the abandonment of some of the access promises made by the previous government.”

The new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is to make his conference speech tomorrow afternoon. It is not known whether he will reiterate his support for scrapping tuition fees or map out HE policy in any more detail than Marsden did at today’s fringe.

Photo: Zaki Dogliani

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