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Say nothing for now

Jess Lister says Labour’s lack of policy pledges on universities doesn’t bother the public—yet

On occasion, higher education can become a hot topic in the run up to a general election. Despite Nick Clegg saying that he was very sorry, the Lib Dems were still wiped out in 2015 after breaking their manifesto commitment and increasing fees to £9,000. In 2017, YouGov found that Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to scrap fees was the most memorable policy in the Labour manifesto—and it was credited in part with sinking Theresa May’s majority.

Will higher education feature as strongly in the 2024 election? Despite more vice chancellors than ever wandering the Albert Dock in Liverpool this year for the Labour Party conference, the announcements made—and our polling on the public’s education priorities for a new government—suggests it won’t be.

My original plan here was to review Labour’s new commitments on higher education against Public First’s recent report, in which we tried to better understand public attitudes to tuition fees policy. But the task was made difficult by the fact that Labour made very few policy pledges at all—certainly none that had the word “university” in them.

Skills rule

Is this a surprise? Perhaps not. We found, for example, that 67 per cent of voters wanted to see more people studying in further education colleges, compared with 20 per cent who wanted to see more studying at university. This jumped to 80 per cent for swing voters. Labour’s newest education announcement—introducing plans for new technical excellence colleges designed to meet local skills needs—is in step with what public opinion is prioritising. Indeed, it was “skills” that was the education buzzword this year.

MillionPlus, the association for modern universities, appeared to win the mission group lobbying battle with its campaign highlighting the role universities play in regional public services and was duly rewarded by an appearance from both Bridget Phillipson and Matt Western at its conference dinner.

Only 6 per cent of voters said they would want to see increased funding to universities as a priority for additional education spending, compared with 31 per cent who wanted to see more money spent on teachers, which explains Labour’s announcement that it would recruit 6,500 more teachers using the money raised from charging VAT on private schools.

We found that 64 per cent do worry that there are some people who are unable to go to university—even if they want to and get the grades to do so—because of the cost. In our focus groups, parents worried in particular about the impact of the debt burden of higher education on their children’s futures.

And current students are frustrated about the high levels of interest they are paying, and watching their student loan amount tick up even as their contributions rise. This explains why—and if you blinked you might have missed it—there was the briefest hint in Bridget Phillipson’s speech that there will be changes in how students pay for university (but not yet any detail on what that change might be).

Positive vibes

There’s some solace in the fact that Labour’s rhetoric on universities is a positive one. Compare Rishi Sunak’s statement on the “false dream” of 50 per cent of children going to university to Keir Starmer’s conclusion that there is no solution in the “levelling down of working class aspiration” when it comes to higher education participation. Our polling suggests it’s Starmer that wins this round: 61 per cent of parents in the lowest socio-economic group said they would definitely or probably want their children to attend university.

But kind words don’t help resolve the fact that, as calculated by DataHE, high inflation and a stagnant unit of resource means that fees would need to increase to £13,880 per year to match rising costs since 2012. It would be an extremely brave move from Labour to commit to anything close to that—not least because when asked specifically about what should happen to fees in light of rising costs, half of our sample thought they should remain fixed regardless, and a further 19 per cent thought they should go up more slowly than the rate of inflation.

It would be wrong to say that this absence of direction means Labour doesn’t care. At Public First’s event with Progressive Britain at the party’s conference on Monday, shadow higher education minister Matt Western admitted that finding a sustainable solution to university funding is an issue keeping him awake at night. I’m sure a few vice chancellors and university finance officers might be in the same boat.

It’s complicated

Labour’s trap, it seems, is a fiscal one. Rachel Reeves’ iron grip as the shadow chancellor means little slips through the net—including popular but potentially expensive pledges to restore things like maintenance grants. The current strategy—to match every new announcement that costs money with an equal policy change that raises sufficient income to cover it—doesn’t map well on an increasingly complicated higher education funding system, the long-term financial impact of which is hard to calculate. Labour’s approach works much better for standalone spending pledges—£1.1bn for the NHS paid for by abolishing non-dom tax status, or breakfast clubs in schools funded by closing tax loopholes.

With higher education, there are far more interconnected consequences on the budget sheet. What happens, for example, if Labour continues the roll out of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement? What about if home student numbers, as predicted, continue to increase as the number of 18-year-old school leavers increases? What happens in the reverse—if home numbers start to drop as universities recruit more higher-fee-paying international students?

There is no easy tax rise or spending tweak that can cover the costs needed to evolve the higher education system. And so—up until the point at which Keir Starmer actually wins an election—it’s unlikely we’ll see any real direction of travel on the small matter of achieving a university funding system that provides long-term security—a theme that features so heavily elsewhere in Labour’s policy offering.

Jess Lister is associate director in the education practice at Public First.