2019 04 – Labour And Higher Education

Labour And Higher Education

Christopher Winch

Third Part of  Open Letter to Angela Rayner and Rebecca Long-Bailey

Higher Education is currently in a mess. You have done the right thing in seeking to abolish tuition fees and the current market-based mania in the sector by promoting legislation that enables this to happen. It is already doing great damage to many valuable institutions and any change such as reductions in fees threatens to tip many universities into bankruptcy with bad consequences for the local economies that depend on them. You are quite right to seek to end the crazy competition that is undermining the integrity of the sector. In general it’s right to treat higher education as a public good as well as a private one and you should follow through on the logic of that position.

But we need to ask a more fundamental question: if HE is a public good, how much should we have of it and how should it be paid for? You have argued that HE should be taken out of the market and that legislation be amended to promote co-operation rather than competition. This is sound, but planned HE also means choices, even when student fees are abolished, as they should be. If there is a worry about financing HE, then it should be done through a progressive tax system, not through a system that favours the rich and privileged and cripples young people’s attempts to start a family with a £100,000 joint debt for a graduate couple.

The fact that nearly half of young people now go on to higher education is not necessarily a cause for celebration. Far too many choose unsuitable courses. Although employment is not the only reason why one should study, it should make you pause when you consider that there is considerable evidence that graduates are often moving into jobs previously done by non-graduates and graduate recruitment often replaces apprenticeship schemes. It is hardly a cause for celebration when the demands of jobs remain roughly the same but you need increased and unnecessary qualification to get the job, particularly when you rack up colossal levels of debt which the taxpayer will have to pay half of anyway.

If you are serious about treating higher education as a public good and not treating its provision as a market, then you should also be serious about planning and supplying it as was the case until the 1990s. This means that the state should take a view as to how many young people enter higher education and in what subjects and at what level. In particular, such an exercise needs to be carried out in conjunction with increased provision of non-higher education courses, better funding for further education colleges and stricter regulation of the private training sector. Most of  those young people who do not go to university do not have a good range of opportunities, either for employment or for vocational education and they should be a priority. I will say more about that issue next month.

In order to get clearer about higher education policy it is important to distinguish between higher education and university education. They are not the same thing. Generally speaking people go to university to get a Bachelor degree. But there are higher education qualifications at subdegree level as well, notably the Higher National Certificate (HNC), the Higher National Diploma and Foundation Degrees. Broadly speaking these cater for occupations that require higher technician or technologist staff. They have now largely been relegated to further education colleges and a tiny number of people doing higher apprenticeships.

Some people argue that we need even more university education because over 70% of young people from Richmond Surrey go to university and only 11% of young people from Hull do so. Can it seriously be suggested that 70% of eighteen year olds from Hull should go to university because that is the number who go from Richmond?  We need to know whether young people, be they from Richmond, Hull or anywhere else have opportunities to study, to get worthwhile qualifications and an interesting and reasonably well-paid job. And if those opportunities are manifestly unequal then it is the job of government to put that right. While the number of young people doing degrees at university has been rising this is not the case with the other higher educational qualifications which may actually be much better suited to the labour market. Could one think the unthinkable and gradually transfer funding from BAs to HNCs, HNDs and Foundation Degrees that provide more relevant qualifications serving local and regional labour markets? Better regional co-ordination and co-operation between FE colleges and universities could ensure a much wider spread of subjects than are currently on offer and qualifications can be developed which are better suited to the kinds of jobs and occupations that are available. It may be that not enough good jobs are available, but government has a role to play in remedying this as well, which I will say more about next month.

Simply closing down universities could have catastrophic consequences for the communities in which they are located. But it may well be the case that too many of them are offering the wrong kinds of qualifications. You should definitely call a halt to the current expansion of numbers and begin a nationwide review of provision to work out where there is an oversupply of students and where there are too few. It should then be possible to start rebalancing the system in a managed way which avoids large scale closures, mergers and redundancies. It may not be necessary to reduce the overall size of the system if resources can be switched from poor quality degree programmes to higher quality HNCs, HNDs and Foundation Degrees. Increasing the number of young people on Higher Apprenticeships needs to be done by working with companies to support them in taking on students, either through attaching conditions to government funded procurement throughout the supply chain or through managed investment in the regions. I’ll say more about the latter in the next part of my letter. A priority should definitely be the economic regeneration of areas outside London so that the needs of young people throughout the country can be addressed.

You may be worried that there is too much emphasis in this letter on the needs of the economy and not enough on the more individual and civic aims of education. Such a concern is quite justified. However there are two responses that should go a long way to allaying such fears. The first is that vocational qualifications should not be narrow. They should also address personal development and civic awareness. It will probably be necessary to reform a large number of qualifications by making their funding conditional on their having non-vocational and civic elements. This would bring British practice into line with what existed here in the post war years and to what currently exists in France, Germany and some other European countries. There should also be  much larger investment in part time study and the Open University should be restored to its former glory. Abolition of fees should go a long way towards doing this, but a Labour government should also consider ways of encouraging enterprises to support the part time study of their employees which may include attending to their further education as well as to improving their occupational qualifications.

At the moment the situation in Higher Education is quite dire. The sector has been turned over to the market domestically and this has corrupted it by forcing university leaderships to act as if they are captains of industry. In addition it is also regarded as an ‘export industry’ gaining  a lot of its income through recruiting overseas students and overcharging them. This scam cannot last forever and when it is seen through by the countries that send these students, notably China, the consequences for universities will be dire if they have come to rely on the income from this source, as most have. If universities are to continue with the heavy recruitment of overseas students, a Labour government should insist that the fees are realistic and that overseas students receive appropriate pastoral and academic support. The overseas student boom will not last forever but the inevitable decline should be carefully managed in such a way that the university sector is not irrevocably damaged when it happens.

A final point. You should not be squeamish about reviewing the range of subjects offered by universities. There are some very worthwhile ‘liberal’ subjects such as philosophy and history. There are also some highly dubious ones such as business studies and economics which, in their present form, may actually be doing the country a great deal of harm. If economists persist in teaching an ideologically motivated version of human economic behaviour then you should be open to the idea of encouraging a less dogmatic version of the field under the heading of, say, political economy, which questions neoclassical dogma. This would be providing choice, not censoring the freedom of academics. The latter too often means cabals of academic stifle dissident voices and innovation within their fields.