Fifty years ago this October, Harold Wilson’s office took the call from the Palace and the Queen’s private secretary, Lord Adeane, politely asked if it would be convenient for Mr Wilson to come and see Her Majesty. That Friday afternoon, Labour became the first opposition since 1906 to evict a sitting Conservative government.
Key to Labour’s political sizzle in 1964 was the promise of the “white heat of the technological revolution”, and centre-stage was a plan to revolutionise our universities, opening opportunity to millions of people like my parents.
Today it’s time to return our universities and colleges to the centre stage of the political debate for one simple reason: the defining challenge for the UK today is how we reconnect the wealth of the nation with the fortunes of ordinary families. Ending today’s cost of living crisis demands growth that is more inclusive, based on higher skilled jobs paying higher wages and fewer low skilled, low wage jobs.
Universities are part of the solution. They are no longer remote debating chambers: they are the classrooms of global citizens. They are no longer ivory towers of the medieval landscape. They are the power stations of the knowledge economy.
Yet, under this government, they face a bleak future. An ethos of “dog eat dog” and “survival of the fittest” is failing our science base and doing little to remedy our chronic skills shortages or provide students with a real choice of path to the top. It’s failing to fuel any real advance in social mobility, and above all, it simply isn’t fiscally sustainable in the years ahead.
Good research and good teaching need good and sure foundations. And what is now clear is that the Tories’ student loan system that finances our universities, voted through by the Liberal Democrats, has loaded young people with debt while saving hardly any money. According to the Public Accounts Committee, the government expects to write off nearly half of all the money it lends to students. Meanwhile, in a free-market experiment gone wild, nearly a billion pounds has been channelled since 2010 straight to the hundreds of private providers - with zero controls on their profits.
We can’t go on like this. We need a better way. And so, over the last six months, we’ve hosted hundreds of conversations with students, scientists, researchers and university and college leaders. We’ve explored new ideas and trends in Europe, India and China. It has quickly become clear why Britain has so many great universities and colleges: they are home to some of the greatest academics, teachers and students on the planet. But, it’s a sector that is profoundly frustrated with the state of debate. So, this week, we have published the “big five” ideas that have emerged from our conversations. These are the ideas we want to debate, because together they could boost our knowledge economy and open high-paying technical and professional jobs to the “forgotten 50 per cent” that do not currently go to university. They are ideas for a university system to help the UK compete in the light-speed global digital economy.
That is why Ed Miliband has set out Labour’s plans to introduce new “technical degrees”, which would be studied for while holding down a job with a wage. They could be based at what you might call “technical universities” - of the kind envisaged by Sir Keith Burnett and Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellors of the universities of Sheffield and Warwick respectively - which carry out world-class research together with industry.
Others have said that we should add into the mix a revolution in links between universities and further education colleges - perhaps licenced as Institutes of Technical Excellence - so that thousands might start their journey to a degree at their local college, much like the American community college model.
Third, council and university leaders have told us they want a huge expansion in the number of University Enterprise Zones, so that university research becomes a more potent power station for the local knowledge economy, especially for new young businesses.
Almost everyone has told us that they need longer-term research budgets and better support for the “star alliances” that our world-class universities are building, linking together the world’s best scientists and carving out for the UK a bigger share of the “global lab”.
And fifth, we’ve heard the calls for a 21st century revolution in access to technical education: for a national network linking university advice services to support access for those wishing to progress, whether through a technical or academic route; for support for university-school trusts that are connecting the classroom and the lab; for seizing the opportunity offered by the Open University’s massive open online courses; and for fostering new workplace partnerships between workers’ education organisations such as the Workers Education Association and UnionLearn.
These are the kinds of ideas that could make a difference to opportunity, to our economy and to optimism about the future. Fifty years ago, it fell to the Labour government to implement the breakthrough Robbins Report, replete with the principle that anyone qualified could take the journey to a degree. It’s a bold idea that should inspire us still. But today we need more than Robbins re-visited. We need Robbins rebooted.