Labour’s National Education Service policy first proposed in its 2017 manifesto, ‘For the Many, Not the Few’, promised for the first time in the history of British social policy a “cradle-to-grave” education system, free at the point of use.
However, beyond the promise to abolish tuition fees and reintroduce maintenance grants in higher education – both crucial steps to de-commodify HE and restore its public mission – the NES remains somewhat vague as to what specific policies it would introduce into the sector.
What is the alternative?
Putting flesh on the bones of its NES policy is particularly important now that the Conservative Government has published the results of its long awaited Augar report, which arguably does nothing to fix the systemic problems created by decades of market reform. In my submission to Labour’s National Policy Forum 2019 Consultation, I put forward several proposals that I think build significantly on the promise of the NES policy, which, if implemented, would not only restore HE’s public mission but put the sector to work on solving pressing issues facing society, such as climate change.
I urge Labour to create a democratic body for tertiary education – intrinsically linked and co-operating with a similar body in compulsory education – that can allocate funding according to a national education strategy informed by robust and democratic feedback mechanisms. This body should have an elected board, with representation reflecting fairly the mutual interests in tertiary education: academics, teachers, administrators, parents and communities, students, trade unions, civil servants, and Members of Parliament from all political parties. Once established, this body should begin a wide-ranging, patient and inclusive consultation with all the above stakeholder groups, to create a framework for self-evaluation and collaboration within tertiary education.
Labour should protect the public interest in universities by placing each university’s assets in a nonrevocable trust – after the model of the John Lewis Partnership – which would hold the formal legal title to the organisation’s assets. With the Augar Review’s proposal to cut fees to £7,500 without top-up public funding for majority of “economically useless” subjects and Michael Barber’s promise not to bail out universities in the event of financial insolvency, there is a serious threat of a hostile takeover by for-profit education corporations.
Aside from protecting public assets from predatory corporate interests, asset locks would lever universities away from the destructive market behaviours that have driven this financialisation within the sector in the first place.
In my recent pamphlet, Markets, Monopolies and Municipal Ownership, I argue that market behaviours were first introduced into the sector through ‘incorporation’ in 1992. By encouraging universities to behave like private-sector corporations, the Conservatives created a ‘bottom-up’ process of marketisation that would not be expunged by abolishing tuition fees alone. Asset locks would put an immediate break on this corporatisation at a local level. Complementing the national consultation proposed above, local consultations can then begin to address the multitudinous governance issues uncovered in recent years that have resulted from corporatisation.
Drawing on the work of Rebecca Boden and colleagues, I suggest that Labour should support the University and College Union, in conjunction with the Trades Union Congress, local trades councils and community organisations, to set up “search conferences”, with the long-term aim of establishing new democratic forums like citizen assemblies. These search conferences would seek to find out what local communities need from their local universities, in terms of local re-skilling and employment needs, but also in terms of socially useful research that could be undertaken by academics, where appropriate, through practices of co-inquiry with the public.
Going well beyond the tokenism of current corporate social responsibility programmes, as well as the disappointing UPP Foundation report, “Truly Civic: Strengthening the Connection Between Universities and their Places”, these search conferences could turn universities into truly civic institutions imagined at the turn of the 20th century. Finally, I propose that Labour should explore alternative models of ownership in higher education, as it has with other public services like utilities and in line with its wider alternative economic strategy.
The asset lock proposed above provides an ideal transitional form towards co-operative ownership models, for example. The creation of a Co-operative University is currently being explored by the Co-operative College, and examples of co-operative FE and HE already exist in the UK and abroad, as well as in compulsory education. Furthermore, by sourcing their services from local co-operatives where possible, while integrating social needs into their corporate plans to create “people’s plans” – like those seen recently in Manchester and London, as well as earlier examples like the Lucas Plan – democratised universities could become anchor institutions for genuine, inclusive growth at a regional level.
The vision of HE presented above, of democratised universities acting as co-operative anchor institutions and hubs of collective intelligence, also provides an institutional framework for the implementation of Labour’s Green Transformation programme. While Cleveland and Preston models of municipalism show how wealth can be kept within local and regional communities, democratised universities acting as socially useful anchor institutions can research green technologies, help green co-operative start-ups thrive and teach young people and adults alike how to live in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.