What does Labour’s silence on tuition fees tell us?

The Labour Party has published what it’s amusingly calling “7 Key Tests for Higher Education”, calling on the government to help both universities and students.

Plot spoiler – they’re not really that key, and they’re not really tests. But there are seven. And as usual with this sort of stuff, it’s what the press release doesn’t say rather than what it does say that’s so telling.

First up, Labour Shadow Emma Hardy says that no university should be allowed to go bust, and argues that there must be “equality of opportunity for all in every region”. In the detail this rather vague promise appears to be a way of stressing the impact of a closure on local economies point, with “60,000 jobs under threat” plucked out of the air to illustrate tomorrow morning’s regional copy. It’s coupled with a final seventh “test” on the civic agenda.

Next is “reduce barriers to learning”, where a collection of issues that need “urgently addressing” include widening participation activities that have “ground to a halt”, the BAME experience and awarding gap and the decline in part-time student numbers. “Protect and enhance domestic and international research” has the detail you would expect it to have, as does “enhance a co-operative and co-ordinated sector across the whole of the UK”, which is a dig at marketisation without actually mentioning marketisation.

For students, there’s a demand that government prevents further financial hardship for current students (by guaranteeing university hardship funds are sufficiently resourced) and providing support for final year students (picking up sector proposals on six-month long paid internships at the national living wage).

If that all sounds crushingly unambitious, it’s probably because it is. There’s no mention in here, for example, of the cause of close on half a million students who’ve signed petitions demanding fee refunds – or the slowly emerging continuing students who are starting to express horror at the paucity of the reality of “blended” learning and wider Covid-19 implications. Maybe this is a Labour leadership that is desperate to avoid talking about fees – even for nursing students – despite it being almost all it talked about on HE at the last two elections.

At one stage Labour policy on higher education was so close to that of UCU and NUS that it was often hard to tell the press releases apart – not so much today. This is probably the first Labour release on HE in years with no mention of PQA – a favourite of UCU. Staff are barely mentioned. There’s no sign of students being able to repeat the year as NUS has asked for. Not a peep on the digital divide. And there’s not a even hint of supporting NUS and backbench calls to extend universal credit to students over the summer.

Given the debate that is bound to go mainstream before September, it’s also odd that Labour is setting tests for government policy on higher education and not mentioning safety – on campus, amongst students or in university cities – at all. It may live to regret not taking the opportunity to lodge a letter with Gavin that Keir can come back to when Parliament reappears… during Freshers’ week.

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