So, Labour is planning to reduce fees for University students from £9000 to £6000. Well let’s ask a question and toss a coin. Is Labour’s announcement a sensible approach to the funding of Higher Education? Or is it just a tactical grab for those Lib Dem voters who turned on Nick Clegg after he stuffed his election fees pledge in the glove compartment of his deputy Prime Ministerial limo? Well, I lied about needing a coin. It’s rather obviously the latter. It’s electioneering and not a sensible policy for Higher Education. And there is absolutely no detail on £10bn which will be needed to replace the income Universities currently get from fees.
Every body says they hate fees. But they’re not the problem. The re-payment regime is very light and they have been a welcome injection of resource into teaching and research. And they haven’t put off poor kids who are now 60% more likely to go to University than in 2006.
The problems that Labour should tackle instead are: the serious drop off of part time students (7% last year alone), most of whom are mature students; the real disincentive for poor kids from going to University which is the debt they take away from the cost of living as a student and, thirdly, the failure of governments to fund PhDs properly.
If Labour really wanted a sensible proposal they’d increase the grant for students from poor families and develop better links with business to fund part-time courses and develop a stream of funds for PhD students
The Office of Fair Access has done a good job in keeping up the pressure via the access agreements to provide bursaries. Labour should extend this work by increasing the incentives to Universities to attract poor kids by increasing their investment in more school outreach work (The Sutton Trust has shown just how effective this is), and to use even more contextual information when assessing A level grades (rather than just relying on straight tariffs). Poor students should then be eligible for the government to pay their rent directly for University accommodation.
The value of part-time study is primarily to people beyond the traditional undergraduate age who are working and the businesses they work in. Labour should be looking at tax incentives to those businesses to encourage them to second workers to part-time study to upgrade or change their skills. This would strengthen the relationship between University-generated innovation and business, increase investment in research, boost the skills and knowledge of British workers in a global economy which is highly competitive for ideas and operate as a lever for diversity in HE by offering an opportunity to employees who never went to University in the first place.
The Coalition did introduce a postgraduate loans system after the Autumn Statement. However it was accompanied by rather fanciful claims that it would increase the number of Post Graduates by 10,000 a year and an unhelpful stipulation that it would only apply to those under 30, dealing another blow to mature students and those in work. Labour could invest in Doctoral students by partnering with business (again incentivised by tax) to create research funds and bursaries for the cost of living for PhD students.
But instead Labour has opted for a flash snatch for the votes on the left hand side of the LibDems and Greens by reducing fees while offering nothing to either universities or to students.
Like Chris Bryant on culture, instead of bothering to announce a serious policy response to the need to invest in making sure that working class stories reach our screens and stages when you can engage in a bit of public school bashing, they’ve avoided a credible approach to University funding and access in order to pick-pocket a few Lib Dem and Green votes.
It feels like another moment in Miliband’s core vote strategy of getting to the winning post rather than having a vision of what you would do when you get there. And Universities and the economy will suffer as a result.