Labour 2017: Corbyn’s ship remains afloat in Brighton

Pam Tatlow finds a lively political conference buoyed by talk of abolishing tuition fees

September 27, 2017
Brighton, rock, seaside
Source: iStock

It is unlikely that the UK Prime Minister had in mind Graham Greene’s 1938 novel when she called the June election – however she may well have envisaged Labour’s 2017 conference as the Brighton Rock upon which Jeremy Corbyn’s ship might have foundered, plunging the Labour Party into yet another leadership election.  

Instead, Brighton 2017 was the largest (and probably the most representative, in terms of the population) of any conference that has been held in the UK in recent years. It is also important to note that, unlike 2016, business is taking Labour seriously; the business reception at the event was packed out. 

Given the improved share of the 18- to 40-year-old vote secured by Labour in June, it is hardly surprising that the pledge of free tuition was repeated regularly by spokespeople and visitors alike (including by Corbyn in his leader’s address today). However, it was not mentioned by Angela Rayner, secretary of state for education, who chose to emphasise in her conference speech Labour’s wider commitments to education.

There are lessons here for universities and their vice-chancellors, whose salaries were mentioned only once in the fringe events that I attended – and then by the leader of a major city council, who added that the real scandal was the pay and benefits that had been awarded to academy heads in the school sector. There’s not far to dig to find an opacity in the academy sector and in further education, where some principals are paid more than some vice-chancellors. While current government ministers (and the Office for Students) may think that senior university leaders’ pay is an issue that has caught the public mood, in Brighton there was much more talk about the limitations of the funding system as a whole – including living costs for students. 

While John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor of the exchequer, made clear that he would work with Philip Hammond, his opposite number in government, to reduce student fees, there is little doubt that Labour is interested in wider reform. Whether vice-chancellors and Universities UK like it or not, the prevailing view is that the fees and funding system in England will not deliver the life-long learning and access to education and qualifications that society and the economy need.

Trying to describe it in more “user-friendly” terms may end up cutting little ice with students or the current opposition. 

For Labour, access to higher education is part and parcel of its National Education Service. When Labour talks up free tuition, the party means for university and college. Advanced learner loans, which college students who are 19 and over have to take out to study for a level 3 course if they cannot pay fees up front, would also be abolished. As shadow higher education minister Gordon Marsden never tired of repeating at the many fringes at which I saw him speak, £1 billion set aside for these loans by the government was about to be returned to the Treasury because they had not been taken up by potential students. 

Universities may want more detail about Labour’s higher education policies, but it was left to Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary and a long-standing supporter of tuition-free education, to address the elephant in the room by pointing out that Labour would need to commit to the future funding of universities and colleges if fees were abolished. The potential for a coalition at national level between the National Union of Students, the UCU, and universities on key questions of the day (whether they be the future of fees, funding and student support or the issues that the current government is tabling in respect of the teaching excellence framework) remains a missed opportunity. 

Finally, it is easy to hear universities described as anchor institutions by shadow spokesmen at HE-organised events. It is not a message repeated in fringe events elsewhere. Universities rarely get a mention from local government leaders and some city mayors.

There’s an important job to do here in all parties to ensure that the engagement of universities at local level is fully reflected and understood. 

We are now back in the office, our bags unpacked and – in spite of Graham Greene – the MillionPlus team and I missed out on Brighton rock, and are making do with toffee and fudge instead. What Mancunian treats will they get from the Conservative Conference, which starts at the weekend? More next week.

Pam Tatlow is chief executive of MillionPlus.

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