Education empowers us all to realise our full potential and higher education is its keystone. We believe that every child – and adult – matters. That’s why Labour will create a National Education Service, moving towards learning that’s free at the point of use at every age.
We are committed to building bridges while the Conservatives continue to build barriers. Right now, we need to tackle the huge demands of a growing skills gap. Our National Education Service will give people confidence and hope, making education a right not a privilege.
We believe that education is an entitlement not a commodity. No one should be put off educating themselves over lack of money or fear of debt. Over the past few years, the government created a triple whammy for students: scrapping maintenance grants; freezing the student loan threshold; and removing NHS bursaries. This, while trebling tuition fees to £9,000 and introducing a teaching excellence framework (TEF) that we believe the Tories want to use as a Trojan horse for removing the fee cap.
The average student now graduates and starts their working life with debts of £44,000, according to the Sutton Trust. That is why we must remove those obstacles.
We are taking a progressive direction of travel to abolish tuition fees. In fact, we would move quickly to scrap fees for students starting university in England this autumn, and would also ensure that students who are currently at university will not have to pay tuition for their remaining years. We will reinstate grants for the most disadvantaged students enabling more than 500,000 students from lower- and middle-income families to go on to higher education. We’ll reintroduce NHS bursaries to reverse the decline in applications.
But it’s not just traditional younger students who require our help. At a time when working lives and the skills that our economy needs are changing rapidly, governments have the moral duty to make lifelong learning a reality with the opportunity for all to access education throughout their lives.
Over the past 18 months, we have placed the critical importance of lifelong learning centre stage. Throughout the passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill, Labour pushed for access measures to improve access for part-time and adult education.
Mature students regularly access higher education via part-time routes – often while tackling caring responsibilities, employment and juggling family commitments. But the Tories have overseen the loss of 1.3 million adult further education learners between 2010 and 2015, with part-time higher education students also down significantly.
That’s why we would set up a Standing Commission on Lifelong Learning tasked with identifying and rectifying challenges faced by adult learners and further integrating further education and higher education. We have pledged free education in further education colleges, for people to upskill and retrain.
We need to make higher education work for further education colleges as well as traditional universities. I have an excellent college delivering higher education provision in Blackpool [my constituency] – and that is particularly true for part-time and adult students. The government’s wilful neglect of this in scrapping maintenance grants (as well as Education Maintenance Allowance) is hitting further education colleges’ ability to deliver higher education.
Finally, we must support and protect our universities and our international reputation. International students generate more than £25 billion for our economy and significantly boost regional jobs and local businesses. But thanks, I believe, to Theresa May’s insularity on student policy, European Union applications to study here fell by 7 per cent after the Brexit vote.
We fought throughout the Tories’ bill for international students not to be included in net migration figures, receiving a concession ensuring that the TEF couldn’t be used to restrict international students. Labour welcomes international students who strengthen our education sector and will not include them in immigration numbers.
Labour believes we need 21st-century solutions – offering education to all – not the tired, stale, market-obsessed post-Thatcherite obsessions of Theresa May’s ministers, working in silos, nudging people away from the skills and opportunities they, and the nation, needs to survive and prosper.
Connecting higher education, further education and online learning, building on the great achievement of Harold Wilson’s Labour government with the Open University – this is the direction of travel that we are proposing at this election.
Gordon Marsden is Labour’s shadow higher education minister.