Is Jeremy Corbyn serious about free higher education?

The Labour Party’s lack of a higher education policy could leave the sector at the mercy of perils far greater than the teaching excellence framework, argues Martin McQuillan

October 3, 2015
Labour Party logo at conference
Source: iStock

It is often said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. During his successful campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn promised to abolish university tuition fees and restore maintenance grants, at an estimated cost of £10 billion a year. However, when he gave his debut leader’s speech to the party conference on 29 September, a reaffirmation of the policy was conspicuous by its absence. 

Instead, the previous day, shadow spokesperson for universities, Gordon Marsden, stated at the fringe session organised by Million+ and the National Union of Students, that there was to be a policy review that “ruled nothing in or out”. By this afternoon the story had crossed over into the mainstream press with both The Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times asking if Corbyn was about to “do a Nick Clegg” on the question of fees.

Launching a policy review does not necessarily rule out a plan to scrap fees and loans, but nor does it rule out accepting the status quo of £9,000 fees. However, along with other key pledges in his election campaign, it certainly looks as if Corbyn, in the face of opposition from the Parliamentary Labour Party, is rowing back on his tuition fees promise. This would represent one of the quickest policy melts in recent years, and is bound to disappoint those who voted for Corbyn as an alternative to continuity Labour.

I have throughout remained sceptical of the Jeremy Corbyn experience. While in the last Parliament The Spectator was kind enough to describe me as a “notoriously left-wing academic”, I am temperamentally suspicious of the evangelical in politics. The problem with questioning the Corbyn phenomenon in its infancy is that there is an automatic assumption that any criticality is aligned with the negativity that dominates discussion of Corbyn in the mainstream media. 

I am too well versed in the politics of institutions to think that the more wide-eyed promises of Corbyn’s leadership election campaign could survive passage to the party manifesto, let alone the policy decisions of a future Labour government. Ever since he entered Parliament in 1983 (a period covering three Labour administrations), Corbyn has failed to get his hands dirty in office, while denouncing the pragmatism of others as grubby compromise. Now, as the unexpected leader of the official opposition, he is confronted with the challenge of finding ways to lead his divided party by treading a path attractive to quarrelsome internal audiences rather than to the electorate.

Corbyn has said that he would like the party conference to decide policy rather than the leader or the shadow cabinet. Conference may yet vote to scrap student fees and loans, but that is some way off at the moment. This leaves Labour currently in want of an HE policy. That is a problem because it leaves the field open for a Conservative majority government to push through an unopposed agenda of market reforms and spending cuts.

University leaders are preoccupied, quite rightly, by the proposed shape of the forthcoming teaching excellence framework. However, the results of the TEF are mostly predictable and will closely map existing university league tables. There are much bigger stakes to be played for after the spending review on 25 November. The secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, Sajid Javid, has let it be known that he favours deep cuts in his own departmental budget, and the minister for universities and science, Jo Johnson, has spoken of “simplifying” the allocation of research funding.

Big questions hang over the future of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, quality assessment, the research councils, the research excellence framework and the science budget. Javid brought in the consultancy firm McKinsey to identify cuts in BIS-funded bodies with minimal consultation of the HE sector. The firm is reportedly to recommend reducing the number of partner organisations associated with BIS from 45 to 20, which would cause huge upheaval in the sector. At the same time, the sale of the student loan book is in preparation and there are ongoing scandals in unregulated private providers that have resulted in previous impairments to the BIS budget. The TEF is the least of the sector’s worries at the moment.

This is why whatever the political persuasions of individual academics or vice-chancellors, the sector needs the opposition to be on the ball and to effectively scrutinise government plans. Holding a non-cabinet level brief, Gordon Marsden will not be eligible for a special adviser. Spads are also to be “centralised” in party headquarters to encourage uniformity of opinion. This will leave the opposition spokesman for the complex brief of higher education and skills with the meagre resources of his own parliamentary researcher and constituency secretary.

It is to be hoped that Marsden can access some informed and independent policy advice; it would be a political mistake to accept any offer to outsource his policy analysis to the vested interests of any one of the sector’s stakeholders. If he and Corbyn are serious about advocating free higher education, I can send them a list of the people they need to speak to in order to be credible on this point. If they do not intend to maintain this position, it would be better if they were to say so now and allow the policy discussion to start from another place. Students, graduates and universities require government plans to be held up to public inspection: they do not have time to wait for the internal bureaucracy of perpetual policy review.

Ed Miliband spent five years in opposition vacillating over his policy on tuition fees. In the end, he committed to his £6,000 fees policy too late in the electoral cycle for it to make a difference to the sector or to cross over to the electorate. Corbyn and Marsden would do well to heed the words of the renowned poindexter Dr Frasier Crane: “It may be an unwise man that doesn’t learn from his own mistakes, but it’s an absolute idiot that doesn’t learn from other people’s.” My advice to the Labour Party policy review would be: take your time, but hurry up about it.

Martin McQuillan is pro vice-chancellor for research and dean of arts and social science at Kingston University.

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Reader's comments (1)

There were several MPS at the time of the opposition to top up fees who should be part of this discussion who could from their experience inform this debate and illustrate what went on. Why doesn't the THES renew their association with them and prevent the Old Adonis apologists have a free passage