Labour Party Conference 2023: when dreams become reality

When the glitter finally settles after this year’s Labour Party Conference, the enormity of what lies ahead will start to sink in. The UK finances will not provide much in the way of leeway as a “Labour government will not waiver from iron-clad fiscal rules”. Achieving genuine social mobility and fairness in education will be a difficult road to travel. But progress must be made.

In his speech in Liverpool this week, Keir Starmer gave more than a passing nod to John Lennon with,

“Imagine if instead a whole country said – you do belong.

Imagine if a whole country said we back your potential.

Imagine if a whole country commits, properly, to unlocking the pride you have for your community”. 

The younger people in the packed auditorium, that could not have accommodated all of the 17,500 delegates, or clustered around screens across the huge venue, might have missed the reference, but older delegates will have thought, ‘You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one’.

Starmer did not take it that far but did say the “dream of home ownership…..has become a dream”

Clear water between Labour and the Conservatives.

The contrast between the Conservatives and Labour is becoming sharper on matters of education and aspirations. With the Conservative leadership denouncing the idea of 50% going to university, even their own supporters are getting jittery (see TEFS 6th October 2023 ‘Conservative Party Conference 2023:  the dying of the light’.

Starmer made it very clear that he backed aspirations of university as more than a dream with,

“I never thought I would hear a modern Conservative Prime Minister say that 50% of our children going to university was a false dream”.

What stood out?

Two things stood out. Firstly, the presence of so many young members in the largest Labour Party Conference ever. Secondly, the discussion of education and students resounded around the conference and in many fringe events.

Higher education did not make a big splash at the main conference, but there were friendly noises that would have pleased Vivienne Stern, the CEO of Universities UK.   Starmer clearly signalled that aspirations of young people to go to university would not be held back as signalled by the Conservatives last week (see TEFS 6th October 2023 ‘Conservative Party Conference 2023:  the dying of the light’).  Shadow Education Secretary, Bridget Phillipson, signalled change clearly in her speech with,

“We’ll change the way students pay for their time at university, so none of our young people, fear the price they’ll pay for the choice they’d like”.

However, details of financing universities and students remained locked securely in the Labour policy safe and will only see the day of light near the election next year. When I pressed on the issue, and the possibility of a ‘graduate tax’, outside of the conference, Shadow Universities Minster, Matt Western, simply said, “We are working on it”.

What about finances?

One event hosted by Public First and Progressive Britain tackled this head-on referencing their report just out, ‘Public Attitudes to Tuition Fees. What are Labour’s options for reform?’ (pdf).  Generally, universities were supported and the idea of abolishing fees was not seen as gathering as much support as expected. Instead,

“Restoring maintenance grants is the option most likely to be both a vote winner and a seat winner for Labour”.

On how best to fund universities, using general taxation was not seen as fair. Instead,

“Introducing a graduate tax was also more popular than abolishing fees outright, particularly amongst younger voters”.

Certainly, the idea led to lively debate.  Outside of the meeting, the Shadow Higher Education Minister, Matt Western, was unaware of the deliberations. However, the idea of a graduate tax has been floating around for many years going back to Gordon Brown. Under the Conservatives, both David Willetts and Justine Greening looked at the possibility (see TEFS 23rd February 2023 ‘Labour, fees or a graduate tax and the elephant in the room’).

Two basic principles should inform Labour policy, Firstly, the burden on students through their careers should be very progressive. Secondly, unifying the funding with agreement across the whole of the UK.  To placate those in Scotland, fees would be abolished.  The only way forward to be progressive would then be the levy of a graduate tax. The current system is grossly unfair to poorer students. An alternative approach favoured by TEFS would be to levy an additional graduate contribution to National Insurance. This could be labelled a contribution to a ‘National Education Service’, for education beyond the compulsory education age that was funded by general taxation. This general idea was originally supported by Angela Rayner when she was Shadow Education Secretary in the Corbyn era. If this is the plan locked in the safe, then it is no wonder it’s not been let out yet.

Noises on education, equality, and fairness around the fringes.

Of the five missions, ‘Break down barriers to opportunity’ embraced all levels of education and certainly featured a lot, including access and fairness at universities.

Attending all of the fringe events on students and education was impossible and many observers will have different views depending on what they managed to attend. Over the three days, there were well over 700 fringe events. Of these around 78 tackled education at all levels from early years to universities and colleges. This is not counting the many more references to education and skills needed for a new advanced technical industrial future.

The widespread mood was one of addressing inequalities and lack of fairness, and this seemed to be pushing up through the paving like plants reclaiming the sunlight. This is after all the life force that underpins Labour.  The old order is breaking down and a new order is forcing its way through to claim the space.

The burden of part-time jobs for students.

It was heartening to see that every fringe meeting I attended concerned with students and higher education (apart from one) referred to the burden of part-time jobs. This is a pressing issue that must be addressed. TEFS has pushed on this point on many occasions over the last few years. More recently in June of this year with, ‘More students in jobs as fewer travel first class on the university experience train’.  With the latest surveys uncovering the uncomfortable news that the majority of students now resort to part-time jobs, it seems the problem is coming too close to home for better-off families. More maintenance support is the only solution and Labour will have to budget for this to meet aspirations.

Education and social mobility.

British Future held a very interesting discussion on ‘Bridge the Gap: What should a Labour government do to improve social mobility?’. This addressed the role of education policy as pivotal to social mobility. It was illuminating with Rachel Sylvester of the Times telling us that one-third fail all GCSEs at age 16. The qualifications are not delivering for these students. She chaired the recent Times Education Commission (report pdf) that made many positive proposals that were widely supported. These included a broader curriculum for education post-16. Notwithstanding the planned ‘Advanced British Standard’ proposed by the government, she made the sensible suggestion that this should be a cross-party issue. Certainly, the Labour opposition has yet to respond to the government’s moves, despite them replacing A-levels and T-levels whilst bypassing BTECs. Instead, at another fringe event Shadow Education Secretary, Bridget Phillipson said that the government’s move was “careless” and “undeliverable”. However, Sylvester may well be right, but I won’t hold my breath.

Student mental health.

This was a packed meeting with many students in the room.  Sponsored by ‘Student Minds’, its CEO Rosie Tressler, made a compelling case for more action.  The meeting introduced the results of rigorous research published recently in the Lancet that linked life as a student with adverse mental health due to,

 “increased financial pressures and worries about achieving high results in the wider economic and social context”. 

It is refreshing to find that the rise in mental health problems for students has been analysed in this way. In response to a question about using the time students have to study as the main ‘currency,’ as opposed to the time lost to part-time jobs, panel member Vivienne Stern of Universities UK reiterated the reaction of many universities condensing their offering into three-day weeks as a solution.

Bearing in mind it’s probably all they could do in the circumstances,  it is still not the solution. It comes with considerable risk. It may exacerbate the two-tier system more. Some already exhausted students will find back-to-back lectures and laboratory practicals difficult to bear whilst others with no jobs are left kicking their heels and losing their way.  Its little wonder stress and anxiety levels are rising.

There is also the matter of the lost time hollowing out the university curriculum. There is a genuine danger for all subjects, but particularly STEM and medical-related subjects.  The solution is obviously to give all students the same time for studies and increase the financial support for them to achieve this.

Manifesto for universities proposed.

As at the Conservative Party Conference, the Higher Education Policy Institute organised a meeting,  to debate its ‘Election 2024: Three Vice-Chancellors’ Manifestos’. Again, the call was for more support for universities and an overhaul of regulation by the OfS. The pressures on students were highlighted in the report with,

“Government needs to recognise that loan-based support for student maintenance for day-to-day living costs will never be attractive to students from less well-off backgrounds”.

However, it was odd that the impact of student jobs diverting time from studies was not highlighted. Outside of the meeting, one VC confirmed they had no data about the number of students and the hours they spent in part-time jobs. The reason given was that there were already too many staff working full-time gathering other data. Surely the enormous effect on students would warrant greater priority.

Badges of honour.

It was notable that at every turn in fringe events, panel members were declaring their ‘working class credentials’.  It was surprising to see how easily the Labour Party could muster so many, but they managed with room to spare. Starmer himself got in on the act as much as possible. He resorted to mentioning his childhood home with, “that pebble-dashed semi was everything to my family”.  You could almost hear the grown of ‘Pebble dash! You were lucky’. But he knows he was lucky, in contrast to Sunak who “keeps a close watch on the cost-of-living crisis – from the vantage point of his short-haul helicopter”. The horrible truth is that things are getting worse and too many children are growing up without a stable place to call home as we lurch from, 

“Thirteen years of ‘things can only get better’ versus thirteen years of ‘things have only got worse’”.

We must never forget the utter tragic scandal of a record number of homeless children this year compounded in a report from Shelter in March that observed, ‘Almost half of children who become homeless forced to move schools’. The impact of this will haunt the UK for many years to come. There is no excuse and Labour is waiting in the wings.

It’s the economy stupid.

The defining slogan of the Clinton presidential campaign in 1992 has been quoted many times since. It was not an idea arising from Clinton himself, but from his very effective campaign leader, James Carville. Nevertheless, it distilled down most political campaigns in an open democracy to four words,

“It’s the economy, stupid.”

The 2024 election will be no different. However, there will be the added question about who to trust with the economy.  Promising more investment for growth, a massive housing expansion, control of profiteering utilities, and improvements in education are likely to sway voters. But in her speech, Rachel Reeves promised, “Change will be achieved only on the basis of iron discipline” which sets the scene for difficult decisions.

Young people seeking a more hopeful outlook will be attracted to a social mobility agenda that rewards aspiration (see TEFS 4th May 2018 ‘Social Mobility: It’s the economy, stupid’). They will not take kindly to efforts by the government to dampen their aspirations of a university education. The Conservative offering is also skating on very thin ice with its recent track record on the economy and Labour promises to investigate how the government used taxpayers’ money will resonate with most people.

Last word and quote of the conference.

In one fringe meeting, the panel of older people was challenged about why there were no students represented. This was evident across the meetings, despite a large number of young people attending. The answer provided the unintended ironic quote of the conference describing a student panel member as representing a,

“Vox pop study with an n of one”.

Yes, they are called voters!

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

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