As an aficionado of crazy golf, I felt quite sad seeing the pirate-themed course on Brighton’s Madeira Drive shut down in the off-season and deserted. And as an aficionado of the journalistic tradition of tortured analogies, I thought this was a bit like higher education’s role at the Labour conference: you might have expected it to be a centre of attention, yet it definitely wasn’t.
Despite Labour’s £11 billion pledge to abolish fees being the most costly in its manifesto, and having achieved electoral impact in significant numbers of key seats, it was virtually absent from Corbyn’s conference speech and from that of the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner (although it was more prominent in shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s speech). And while the fees pledge of course figured in the higher education fringe events, there was little sense that Labour is yet addressing the key questions of policy that it raises, or has much of a philosophy for how things will be different in higher education if that pledge turns into reality.
Corbyn visited the University of Sussex during the conference. He talked to students who have benefited from a Sussex scheme giving cash to students from families with incomes under £42,875, or who are the first in their families to go to university (£3,000 in their first year, £1,000 a year in subsequent years). But the First-Generation Scholars scheme that Corbyn discussed at Sussex came about under the £9,000 tuition fees regime – as he must have learned. The scheme is the key element of the university’s access agreement with the Office for Fair Access (which was created under Labour's fee regime). In 2015-16, English universities spent £725.2 million, or 27.4 per cent of fee income above £6,000, on access measures under these agreements.
One vice-chancellor puts recent progress on access down to two things: access funding under Offa agreements and the end of student number controls allowing greater scope for poorer students to enter higher education. There will be a “battle on” to ensure that access does not go “backwards” under a Labour no-fees policy, they suggest.
On the other hand, Labour is pledging to replace all universities’ current fee income with direct public funding – so in theory that covers the fees funding that supports access programmes and means no cut in student numbers from current levels. And Labour is pledging to reintroduce maintenance grants.
“It was made very clear in Labour’s manifesto that on the basis of existing student numbers the cost of the tuition fees policy should be fully covered by our [proposed] corporation tax increases,” Gordon Marsden, Labour’s shadow minister for higher education, further education and skills, tells me in response to those questions about access. “The funding available from this would then substitute in full for the current fees funding HE institutions receive under the existing system.”
On Offa, he adds that Labour has “consistently said – not least in the debates in committee on the HE Bill [which became the Higher Education and Research Act] and the amendments we tabled to the Bill – that we were anxious to preserve and strengthen the Offa director’s role and [to strengthen the director’s] autonomy over targets and funding within the new Office for Students”. Any suggestion “that our policy would mean the end of funding for access under Offa agreements is particularly off-centre – and a non sequitur,” says Marsden.
Meanwhile, in the silences around tuition fees at conference you could hear the argument from some within Labour that the fee-free pledge assigns too much priority and resource to higher education, at the expense of other levels of education.
Rayner is said to have had a “bruising” pre-election exchange with McDonnell when Labour opted to go with the pledge to abolish tuition fees, and to have called for more spending on the Sure Start scheme supporting pre-school children in disadvantaged areas. Her conference speech focus on Sure Start and further education – the benefits of which she has personally felt – and bypassing of tuition fees looked like a deliberate statement of her priorities, as the New Statesman’s George Eaton observed.
Corbyn’s speech – referencing his visit to a further education college and making only glancing reference to tuition fees in higher education – seemed to reflect Rayner’s influence.
So Labour has a leader who could be forgiven for seeing the fees pledge primarily as electoral gold dust (meaning there’s little incentive to dig deeper into policy) and a shadow education secretary whose priorities are elsewhere (understandably, given the funding crises for Sure Start and FE). It is not surprising that there is, as yet, not much evidence of Labour thinking on how to translate the fees pledge from highly effective politics into effective policy (although Marsden is keen to stress that the party sees HE not in a silo, but within its vision for a National Education Service, on which it issued a draft charter during the conference).
The Conservative conference in Manchester may show just how effective the politics of Labour’s fees pledge have been, with the government scrambling to identify reforms to the higher education system in an attempt to appeal to younger voters, following Corbyn’s election impact.
Senior figures in the sector say that they expect some kind of general “direction of travel statement” on student support at the Tory conference, but nothing on fees (Philip Hammond, the chancellor, is reported to be considering cutting fees to £7,500, with replacement government funding only for science and technology subjects).
Justine Greening, the education secretary, speaks on Sunday (although the policy action on fees and loans appears to be taking place in the Treasury and Number 10, rather than the Department for Education). Hammond speaks on Monday.
Maybe, after all, it doesn’t matter that Labour is yet to grapple with the detail of a fees-free system. If, by stepping up the pressure on the Conservatives, its election pledge led to the government raising the loan repayment threshold or perhaps even reintroducing maintenance grants, then few in higher education would argue that positive change had not been secured.
John Morgan is deputy news editor of Times Higher Education.