Labour Party Conference 2022, higher education, and the ‘sound of silence’

The Labour party held its annual conference in Liverpool between Sunday and Wednesday of this week.  With a mounting crisis for students in Higher Education, it was hoped that the Labour Party would offer some alternative policy as a matter of urgency. 

Unfortunately, nothing emerged and there was a profound silence that indicated nothing further was happening very soon.

Shadow Education secretary, Bridget Philipson made a short conference speech complaining that that the current government saw “Universities treated as a political battleground, not a public good.” This was barely audible across the febrile political terrain and not heard beyond the conference hall.

On Monday she popped up at a Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), UPP Foundation and the University of Sussex fringe meeting ‘Student Access and Success: What Works?’.  She praised the role of universities as key players in widening access but declined to say how this was to be sustained in the face of financial chaos. Under questioning, she conceded that change was necessary with, “I think our current funding system is clearly broken. The system is not sustainable, and I think the government will come to recognise that pretty soon as well. I don’t think the post-Augar response is a response that will endure for the long term, and I don’t think it provides universities with the sustainability that they need.” 

Graduate tax coming?

There are rumblings that the current fee repayment system will be replaced by a graduate tax under Labour. TEFS has long held that a progressive graduate tax would be a better and fairer option.  With a slight nod in this direction, Philipson noted that we’ve got a far less progressive system, with very high marginal tax rates for low and middle earners, at a time when even before the cost-of-living crisis that wasn’t sustainable”. 

Under ‘The simplest way might be the best’ in ‘Follow the Money’ back in 2018, TEFS stated that “The simplest way to pay for education at all levels is for the tax system to take account of additional earnings in a progressive environment. If graduates earn more, they pay more anyway. Introducing a graduate tax to account for the additional earnings the education brings should be part of a reform of the current progressive taxation system and is simpler and more transparent”.  Such a system would be less likely to restrict student numbers and provide more certainty for the universities. More importantly, it could open the door for higher fees that reflect rising costs and inflation.

The status quo for Labour.

The current default position of the Labour party resides in the Labour Manifesto for the 2019 general election ‘It’s Time For Real Change’. The overarching policy then was the creation of “ a National Education Service to provide support and  opportunity throughout your life: from Sure Start centres to top-quality early years education; well-funded schools with lower class sizes to free university tuition with no fees; and free lifelong learning, giving you the chance to reskill throughout your life”.

But the chances of that happening now are receding fast as inevitable spending cuts take hold.  At a policy panel meeting and at  another fringe meeting, organised by University Alliance, the shadow universities minister, Matt Western, refused to be drawn on university finance. But his overall comments drew Times Higher into some extrapolation with ‘Labour ‘close’ to unveiling tuition fee policy‘.  His observation that all three major parties in England would “end up with some kind of graduate repayment system” as their policy seems inevitable. Echoing Philipson’s words, he also indicated that the Labour Party was “very close” to announcing a funding policy for England that would address cuts and would be sustainable.

We wait in hope for light and in anticipation. Meanwhile ‘Hello darkness, my old friend’.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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