What do we know about Labour’s National Education Service? What has been established beyond doubt is that it would be a service, focused on education, available nationally.
Shadow higher education minister Gordon Marsden attempted to flesh out the vision at fringe meetings at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool yesterday, saying that the NES would prioritise lifelong learning and aim to break down the “silos” between higher and further education, academic and vocational education. Then, striking a note that was bitterly divisive by comparison, Marsden added that his most fervent desire was to see world peace achieved and that fluffy bunny rabbits were really lovely.
Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, added nothing on how the NES will work in practice, or the difference that it will make, in her conference speech.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, tweeted that he had “spent hours today in meetings to hear about the National Education Service…Despite the valiant efforts of every speaker, I still haven’t the foggiest what it is.”
The idea behind the NES is to make all levels of education as universal, accessible and free as the National Health Service.
But beyond the abolition of tuition fees, how would universities look any different under the NES? Marsden talked about how further education, higher education and skills are “morphing” into each other and how “structures” need to reflect this. Perhaps some kind of super-agency created to fund and regulate all this would be one outcome of the policy (an outcome of interest only to specialists).
But if Labour wants to start trying to give the NES idea popular appeal, it could start by seeing it as a solution to one of its biggest electoral problems: towns.
Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan, talked about towns at a separate fringe event on what Labour needs to do to win a majority in a general election. Earlier this year, Nandy launched a new thinktank, the Centre For Towns, which she described as “running out of a shed in Bolton” and which describes itself as focusing on “the viability and prosperity of our towns”.
Labour’s shift to an increasingly metropolitan voter base was clear at the last election. Despite making significant gains overall, the party lost six seats – all to the Tories and all in Brexit-backing constituencies – including Mansfield, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, Stoke-on-Trent South, and Walsall North. Without winning such towns, there is no path to a majority for Labour.
Nandy said that whether it is “broadband, transport [or] skills, the infrastructure just isn’t there” in too many towns. To get decent jobs, younger people leave their homes (and families) in towns for distant cities, she said. They are forced, she explained, to “choose between love and family and home, and work and opportunity”.
People in Barnsley still feel a pride in mining, the industry that once sustained its community, but there is little chance of the same happening with jobs “assembling solar panels and packing boxes in warehouses”, often on minimum wage and zero-hours contracts, Nandy argued.
Perhaps this is where Labour should be starting with its NES: using it as part of a package of ideas designed to ensure that people in towns have decent lives, by addressing deindustrialisation and the absence of secure, well-paid jobs.
There would be institutions for Labour to work with here: many further education colleges and universities are rooted in the communities of towns, while other universities, such as Sheffield Hallam, are starting to think about how they reach people in nearby towns outside their immediate cities.
There’s a cultural divide to address here, too. The polarisation of political opinion in the UK is partly driven by the growing divide in attitudes between graduates and non-graduates. This polarisation also stems from the way geography shapes access to education and thus outlook.
Nandy touched on this point. “As those towns have aged and cities have grown younger, it’s not just on the EU that social attitudes have completely diverged over the course of my lifetime; it’s on almost every key area of policy: immigration, human rights, social security,” she said.
If Labour wants to address its electoral problems and bridge the cultural gap between cities and towns, then a commitment to spreading the benefits of tertiary education beyond cities via the NES might be part of the solution – although there are of course bigger problems here about how to bring secure jobs and better transport to towns.
And if the NES is to be about improving people’s social prospects and the UK’s economic performance, towns could be the place to root the policy – bringing current windy talk about lifelong learning down to the ground of relevance.
I haven’t thought through the details of how this might work in practice. But that’s within the spirit of Labour’s National Education Service so far.