We open today’s conference with a keynote from Wes Streeting, Labour MP for Ilford North. Wes begins with some kind words for Wonkhe in the hope he might further ascend up our Power List…
Onto more serious matters, Wes is reflecting on the challenges for education and social mobility in the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ as technology, robotics and the internet revolutionise the world of work and the social fabric of industrialised countries. Our challenge is to educate people to thrive in this environment, in particular one that accounts for an ageing population and the need to acquire skills in adult life. The UK lags behind in this area, and highly skilled people are still the most likely to receive further training and development opportunities, and not the lowest skilled.
The EU referendum debate has revealed how opportunities, particularly through education, have become increasingly unequal. This, much more than immigration, is to blame for communities, many in old Labour areas, being left behind. Unfortunately, government policy has exacerbated this problem. Wes highlights cuts to further and adult education, post-16 area reviews, and the focus on quantity over quality of apprenticeships. “Pity the school leaver not attending university trying to understand their options, compared to the wealth of information available to their counterparts who do enter university”. In particular, there needs to be a sustained effort to widen participation in skilled and higher-level apprenticeships to women, disabled people, and BME people.
Wes now turns to HE. The government is a long way off achieving its stated targets for widening participation, but there are two particular challenges he thinks need to be confronted. Firstly, the lack of widened access to Russell Group and ‘elite’ institutions. Wes, a Sutton Trust summer school alumni, quotes the Trust’s research in this area: “2,800 missing students” from the most disadvantaged backgrounds at these institutions. Secondly, universities that claim to be successful at widening access are often the worst for ensuring equal attainment and retention. It is simply unfair to take in students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and plunge them into debt, only to see them drop out after 18 months.
Wes has been very active on the Public Bill Committee for the Higher Education and Research Bill, and has suggested many amendments related to students’ rights and widening access.
Wes states that, if Labour were to “tax the rich into poverty”, he wouldn’t spend it on free tuition fees, but on schools instead, quoting the West Wing: “to make schools like palaces, and pay teachers as well as bankers”. He puts Labour’s current predicament on education policy has been long in the making, since 2010, when it was on the “second tier” of Labour priorities. Labour needs a new debate on its hopes for education, and Policy Exchange is a great place to have that debate.