Liam Byrne, the shadow minister for universities, science and skills, warned that the “indefensible” higher education system will slowly “go bust” and that a new approach to higher education policy was urgently needed, in a report published by the Social Market Foundation think-tank.
The “cost of living crisis” is cast as the enemy once again and Labour’s policy, the saviour. The UK economy is growing, but Labour say that prosperity has only hit a small, privileged few, whilst the poor are left to food banks.
Nearly 80% of the jobs created since the crash are low-skill and low-paid, fuelling a 21% gap in productivity per hour between the UK economy and G7 average. By widening access to higher education, Labour wants to open the door to high-skilled work for the “forgotten 50%” of young people, and revamp Britain’s “knowledge economy”.
Mr Byrne argues that higher education reform is crucial to Labour’s dream of a “richer, fairer country”. There are five big aims: a more a globally competitive science base, to nurture vocational training, to remedy the UK skills deficiency, to promote social mobility, and for higher education to be sustainable and affordable for students and the tax payer.
According to the pamphlet, the current system fails all five checks; Mr Byrne offers five solutions.
‘Technical Universities’ are business-university partnerships, where students could study ‘technical degrees’, as previously mentioned by Ed Miliband, “in a wide range of subjects”. Crucially, these would be earn-while-you-learn “in a job, drawing a wage” according to the pamphlet.
Everyone will study some vocational education from the age of 14, study some English and Maths through to the age of 18, and those on the vocational track can undertake a ‘Technical Baccalaureate’ for 16-18 year olds.
“What young people want is a genuine choice of an earn-while-you-learn route to degree level skills,” Mr Byrne says. “Too many people are being pushed down a one-size-fits-all route where the only way to a degree is a full-time, three-year programme.
“Young people want a better choice than this, which is why the Jaguar Land Rover apprenticeship system – which takes workers to degree level skills and beyond while they’re working – is more competitive than Oxford University.”
In this light, there will also be an increase in the number of apprenticeships available nation-wide.
US-style partnerships would mean “people can transfer their professional and technical degree credits onto a full honours programme at partner universities”.
Research funding reform
Putting research funding on a “long term footing” to help support universities in creating “Star Alliances”, which are “global research partnerships that bring together some of the best minds in the world to collaborate”.
Encourage university links to regional growth
“University Enterprise zones” would connect new ‘Technical Universities’ to regional economies. Local business would benefit from university talent.
Wider access to HE (Higher Education)
Mr Byrne highlights a statement from the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank that “money currently spent on access could be used more effectively”. He proposes a ‘student premium’, which, similar to pupil premium, would provide universities with £1000 for every disadvantaged student enrolled.
Postgraduate funding was also targeted. Degrees are more common and less valuable, so “an incoming government will need to examine how to ensure that post-graduate learning does not become the new barrier to access”.
Mr Byrne says that the current tuition fee system “isn’t fiscally sustainable in the year ahead” as it is “significantly increasing student debt, while saving hardly any money”. But Labour currently offers no alternative.
It is unclear as to whether Byrne’s ideas will make up official Labour university policy.
Megan Dunn, NUS Vice President (Higher Education) said: “Mr Byrne is right to say that we urgently need a new approach to post 16 education policy. The current system of sky high fees and sky high debt is a bad deal for students, a bad deal for academics, a bad deal for universities and a bad deal for society more widely.”
But a Conservative spokesman accused Labour or political posturing, saying Labour “did nothing for 13 years to broaden higher eduction – neglecting apprenticeships and presiding over a growing gap between rich and poor in access to university.
“In contrast this Government is taking the necessary decisions to make sure Britain’s higher education system remains the envy of the world – and equips our young people with the skills they need to succeed in life.
“We’ve launched apprenticeships that are every bit the equal to a degree and all the while aboloshing the cap on university places.
“Once again Labour have no new ideas – just a cosmetic attempt to paint over their woeful record in government.”
Read the pamphlet here: http://www.smf.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Social-Market-Foundation3822-SMF-Robbins-Rebooted_web1.pdf