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Soundbites and sound policy


Andrew Westwood considers what Labour should be thinking about higher education at its party conference

Party conference season is upon us and there won’t be too many more of them—three at most (including this one)—before the next general election. For once, Labour is well ahead in the opinion polls and with a very good chance of winning it when it comes.

But what an election it will be to win: war in Europe, falling wages and living standards, high inflation and the public finances stretched to breaking point by Covid, energy price freezes and, after Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini budget’, additional constraints after a raft of tax cuts. If a Conservative chief secretary to the Treasury were to write a letter to a successor in late 2024, it would have to go into much more detail than the infamous “there is no money” note left by Labour’s Liam Byrne in 2010.

Despite the lack of fiscal wriggle room, Labour must start to do at least two things in the approach to the next election, starting this week: firstly, say enough about what it intends to do in order to win, and secondly, have some idea about what it will do if and when this happens. However, these are not the same things. The former is a mix of tactics and soundbites and the latter is a much more detailed plan for governing. So for higher—or tertiary—education and for science and research, the work must really start now.

The current picture

Part of the policymaking process for Labour, including conference, is recognising what is going wrong with current higher education and research policy approaches.

This is the position: we have a funding system in England that has been more or less frozen in its current form for several years; repayment terms for students starting next year will change, with lower earnings thresholds and a longer repayment period; new Conservative ministers will continue to blame poor-value degree courses for problems, despite a decade of wage and productivity stagnation for young people being by far the bigger cause.

The package of measures introduced in early 2022 may just about get the sector to the end of this parliament. But with rampant inflation, increasing costs and growing student numbers, it is extremely unlikely to last until the end of the next one. Something will have to give and if Labour wins the next election it will need a good idea of what that will be.

Strategic thinking

First it needs to set out its plans to grow the economy, improve productivity and boost earnings across the whole country (one of the other challenges is that growth, wages and productivity vary enormously between areas). So the job for shadow ministers—and for universities and the science community—is to work out where and how they fit into these ambitions. From this lies at least some of the answers about how to organise and fund universities and research, how to pay and reward staff, and then how much to ask students to contribute for the privilege (or the right) to study.

Universities will also be fundamental to many other policy objectives: training doctors and nurses and running the NHS, teachers and schools, progress to ‘net zero’, and also the health and wealth of our local communities. In the way we talk and think about universities, we should never lose sight of these issues because if we do, we lose sight of why higher education and universities matter, as well as why they must be funded properly.

Fees and funding

As for the political lightning rod of tuition fees for undergraduates in England, it will be no surprise if the idea of a graduate tax gets some air on the fringe this week. But while this kind of talk may well get shadow ministers through numerous events and meetings, and possibly even through a general election, to get to the end of the parliament they will have to deliver the detailed processes that might make it work and get the sector from the current system to a very different one. Like so many pledges in higher education, that is easier said than done.

On research funding, there remains the equally challenging route to ensuring that 2.4 per cent of GDP is spent on research. The last Labour manifesto, in 2019, committed to three per cent and this may be a better commitment to stick to. It is a more sensible estimate of where OECD average spending will be by the time the next election happens.

Ideas on funding have so far been relatively cautious. Keir Starmer had been rumoured earlier this summer to be ready to abandon Jeremy Corbyn’s position of free tuition and restored grants, which is still the official Labour position. This was described as a Clause 4 moment in the FT in June and it is possible that this week will be the moment when Starmer chooses formally to do it.

But don’t expect Labour to move away from all of its past commitments. Alongside proposals on research spending, those on lifelong learning and adults studying part-time in the tertiary system may also be retained in some form. So too may some commitments on further education.

And many in the Labour Party will be emboldened by President Biden’s cancelling of some tuition fee debt in the US, both as a political tactic and as a practical idea to reduce costs.

Look to Wales

Others may look to Wales and a Labour government that has managed to work with a fee-based regime—albeit one delivered by a coalition and with more generous support for living costs and for part-timers (as well as a more coherent tertiary and civic approach to the system as a whole).

Furthermore, Labour—like the Conservatives—will also have to decide how to oversee and govern or manage the sector in the longer term. It has not been a good summer either for public sector markets or for the regulators that oversee them. Ofgem, Ofwat, the Environment Agency, the rail regulator and the Office for Students have all had a tough time. Since 2016, even Conservative ministers have often wanted a different model in which they are able to intervene more. Again, Wales might offer a practical model—with its new Commission for Tertiary Education and Research  overseeing further and higher education and some research in a more collaborative system.

So there’s a lot to think about this week, even if it feels like there is actually less being talked about. But the detailed work really has to start now. And if anyone still needs to be convinced about the gap between saying something to get elected and the much trickier task of designing something that will actually work, take a look at Friday’s ‘mini budget’.

Liz Truss promised ‘full fat’ freeports in the summer’s leadership hustings and now that she is prime minister we have a series of ‘investment zones’—a kind of mini deregulated state in which lower taxes and less government interference will allow businesses to get on with growing their local economies. Fully thought through? It doesn’t look like it. But a prize to the first university or college that enquires about opening a campus in one, charging different fees and asking for reduced OfS regulation.

Andrew Westwood is professor of government practice and vice-dean for social responsibility in the faculty of humanities at the University of Manchester.