Labour’s Britain: Education for all

Linda Riordan MP

Something has to give in higher education funding.

The current system might provide universities with enough funding, but leaves thousands of students with crippling debts, no guarantee of employment and years of paying back loans. Is that the kind of legacy we want from our higher education system?

If Labour returns to power it has crucial decisions to make in this policy area and, by all accounts, all options are being looked at. We need to firm up our plans very quickly. A clear narrative, which ensures a fairer system for students and maintaining funding streams, could be electorally popular and workable if we form a government next May.

Let’s just ponder some of the salient facts. Currently, for every £1 spent on teaching students nearly £6 is spent on student debt cancellation. That is an economic and social outrage. It is thought that as many as 50 per cent of this September’s students are not expected to repay their loans in full.

And increasingly parents, students, and wider society are asking: “What are the benefits of going to university?”. Barely a generation ago that question was rarely asked. In fact it was seen as detrimental to future prosperity not to continue studying. In effect, students are currently subsiding higher education funding and then spending years to pay it back with no guarantee of a job that justifies the debt.

The Labour party’s mission should be to restore equality into the system.

There should be a three track approach to this. We cannot move forward on restoring a sense of fairness, without admitting the mistakes when we were last in Government. The introduction of tuition fees was not a decision we should have made and we should come out and be clear about that.

Secondly, there needs to be a reduction in the current rate of tuition fees. The £9000 threshold is simply too high. A reduction in fees would see debt charges falling and the percentage of debt repaid increasing.

These arguments should not just be purely economically based. There is a principle in the Labour movement about the benefits of university education. We should be clear about our mission of standing up for those who want to further their learning and better their employment choices. This argument should not be solely about reducing students’ debt.

Thirdly, we should be talking up higher education as a successful learning path to future employment. Ideas about employer sponsored degrees are certainly worth pursuing as they can benefit young people who go straight into employment from leaving school.

Other ideas are less convincing. To reduce degree studies to two years would be a mistake, and could lead to a reduction in standards and the erosion of courses where young people benefit from the placements in business. I have seen and read proposals that the £6,000 cap would be the starting point for a graduation tax. I don’t think that is an idea we should be moving towards. It doesn’t have much 2020 vision. Taxing young people on their success is not fair, equitable or sellable as a popular policy.

A commitment to reducing tuition fees and eventually scrapping them all together should be our long term goal. The Labour party should not be frightened of arguing its case for this through general taxation. Generations past benefitted from this policy and so should future generations.

There is, I appreciate, the need to maintain the funding of higher education. This is the role of the state, not the student. Clearly, there is work to do in this policy area. But let’s not be timid in our manifesto. A pledge to reduce tuition fees would be workable, popular and progressive. Yes our opponents will point to non-existent gaps in funding. But they will do that on plenty of other issues. We should stand up for what we believe and argue the case with conviction. Higher education funding is a key issue. The policy needs to be right, yes, and it also needs to be fair. The two go together and the Labour movement would fail this and future generations of students if it didn’t restore general funding of education through taxation.

Society should owe the talented and educated a great debt of thanks, not a financial debt that takes years to pay off. It’s time to be bold and radical with our plans for higher education reform.

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