Shadow universities minister Emma Hardy says collaboration not competition is the way forward after pandemic
Every crisis starkly exposes shortcomings in a brutal way. As a country, we are seeing that workers previously dismissed by some as ‘low skilled’ are crucial to our way of life, and that our outdated parliament is not ‘quaint’ but inadequate in adapting to online working. In higher education, the coronavirus pandemic is exposing failures caused by marketisation, over-reliance on international tuition fee income and a disassociation that some institutions have from the communities they serve.
We are blessed in the UK to have a world-class university system which offers graduate-level jobs in every region of the UK. Our universities are part of our cultural heritage, produce world leaders, spur economic growth and are a source of national pride.
The way the sector has adapted to the Covid-19 crisis is commendable but more must be done to harness the potential universities have for our regions and our country.
The model of intense competition is failing. Having read Universities UK’s submission to the government, letters from the University and College Union and other higher education organisations and interest groups, what is not surprising is the amount of consensus there is. If we continue down the same path of “unseemly competition” as UCU has warned, then some universities will face financial failure and as it stands the Office for Students has been clear that it will not bail them out.
As highlighted by UUK, the likelihood is that ‘cold spots’ will develop, exacerbating the regional inequalities and putting already disadvantaged students at a greater disadvantage.
There is a consensus around the need for change, and we should look to create a more collaborative system. UUK has already acknowledged that changes need to be made and that these could include “federations and partnerships”. Labour believes there should be greater collaboration between higher education, further education and adult community learning, to anchor those institutions in their communities and reform their governing structure.
Institutions offering similar academic courses in the same region could cooperate with the aim of staff development and educational improvement to benefit students and our national interest.
Refocusing on the need for anchor institutions will have greater urgency as the economic restructuring required by the coronavirus crisis affects jobs in different industries. There has been too much focus on full-time, under 25-year-old students and this must change. There will be a demand for part time and modular study which higher education should embrace by removing the financial and practical barriers to learning.
There needs to be a collective acknowledgement of the unpalatable idea of asking mature students who find themselves unemployed as a result of this crisis to commit to a lifetime loan of over £27,000 for a degree which the government knows they will never repay. Labour will continue to argue for free education for all as we face of challenge of upskilling our country in a post-Covid-19 world.
Our university sector is proving its national value every day, researching Covid-19, supplying NHS students to the frontline and producing protective equipment. To prevent a ‘brain drain’ away from UK higher education, the government must create a long-term stable national funding solution for universities away from the perverse incentives of rampant competition.
As our nation celebrates the NHS weekly we must acknowledge NHS workers’ future contributions by calling for the return of full NHS bursaries and financial support for educating key workers.
A higher education system funded by government, industry and commerce has the power to hold universities to a higher standard, and it should use this power to radically reform the terms and conditions of university staff and in particular the use of insecure contracts.
If we wish the UK to maintain its reputation as a world leader in research, then research grants must be balanced and distributed regionally to create regional institutions of excellence.
The Research Excellence Framework has been discredited nearly as frequently as the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework and the space provided by the suspension of the REF due to Covid-19 opens the discussion on what makes for effective accountability. If we are to build a future based on cooperation, and universities acting in the national interest, then market-based accountability measures serve no purpose.
There will be no ‘business as usual’ after the Covid-19 crisis. The economic hit alone will reshape our high streets, levels of inequality and reliance on the state. It is clear that education will be one way our country climbs out of this crisis, and for that to succeed universities need to step up to the challenge and reshape, innovate and demand the changes needed to government policy.
Emma Hardy MP is the shadow minister for higher and further education.