The Labour Party would “reboot” the access regime for universities under its £6,000 tuition fee policy and is not guaranteeing the future of the Office for Fair Access, according to Liam Byrne.
Labour’s shadow universities, science and skills minister spoke to Times Higher Education after Ed Miliband, the party’s leader, unveiled an election pledge to lower tuition fees to £6,000 along with a commitment for a £400 increase in student maintenance grants in a speech on February.
Some in the sector fear that the party’s commitment to £2.7 billion of annual spending to replace lost tuition fee income for universities could increase pressure for cuts on the rest of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills budget, including research spending.
But Mr Byrne emphasised the urgent need for change. “Right now, the financial system [universities] are built on is turning to dust. There’s no getting around it.”
He highlighted critical reports on the coalition government’s £9,000 fees and loans system produced by the Commons Public Accounts Committee, the Business, Innovation and Skills select committee and the Higher Education Commission all suggesting that it is unsustainable in the long term.
“Although I know that many people in the sector and many university leaders would like to pretend that it can all go on for ever, the truth is it can’t: it will change,” Mr Byrne said. “University leaders have got to be, I’m afraid, hard-headed about who they will trust to give them the truth.”
At present, universities must reach an access agreement with Offa, the sector’s access watchdog, before being allowed to charge fees above £6,000. An institution’s plans on how to support disadvantaged students and applicants are notionally funded from the portion of fees above £6,000.
What would happen to Offa – established by the last Labour government – and access agreements under Labour’s £6,000 plan? “We would reboot access strategy basically,” Mr Byrne said.
He argued that Aimhigher, the national widening participation programme that was scrapped by the coalition government, “should be brought back, probably on a regional basis” and “reconnected with the rebuild of the careers service”.
Does that mean scrapping Offa or keeping it? “We’re not ruling anything out; we’re not ruling anything in,” said Mr Byrne, adding that the party wants a “big conversation with the sector about the right way of delivering access in a world where fees are set at £6K, where we have ambitions to send apprentices to university in a much bigger way”.
Labour’s fees announcement has also prompted questions about whether the commitment to extra funding would entail bringing back caps on undergraduate numbers. “We’ve got no plans to reintroduce those old number controls. We have an ambition to prioritise growth around technical degrees,” Mr Byrne said.
He also reiterated that Labour’s long-term plan was to replace fees and loans with a graduate tax. “Ed Balls [the shadow chancellor], Ed Miliband, Chuka Umunna [the shadow business secretary], myself, we all see a graduate tax as the right long-term solution. But students have been given promises in the past that were broken by [Liberal Democrat leader] Nick Clegg. We have to be really careful; we will only make promises we can keep.”
‘Implosion’ would harm everyone
Some in the sector suggest that at one stage, Labour had planned for Mr Miliband’s speech on fees to include a commitment for extra spending on science, to forestall criticisms of the fee policy from the Russell Group.
In the event, Mr Miliband did not mention science. Some saw in that a failure to guarantee protection for the research budget. Sir Christopher Snowden, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey, said that Labour’s fees policy “will make it more challenging to secure the increased public investment in other priorities, such as research, innovation and social mobility”.
But Mr Byrne said: “If the current system stays as it is, there will be huge cuts to science in the years to come because the university finance system will implode: it’s that simple.”
Bahram Bekhradnia, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a long-standing critic of the coalition’s £9,000 fee policy, called Labour’s announcement “terribly disappointing” and “a mouse produced for electoral reasons”.
“This would have been the perfect opportunity for Labour to take a principled stand in favour of direct and substantial taxpayer funding of higher education, balanced by a much-reduced student fee and reduced government subsidy [for fee loans],” he added.
Fees, Funding and fairness: MPs debate at hustings
Greg Clark, the universities, science and cities minister, has accused Labour of being “unprogressive” in pledging to cut the tuition fee cap to £6,000.
But Liam Byrne, Labour’s shadow universities, science and skills minister, claimed that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have failed to rule out raising fees even higher than £9,000 in the next Parliament.
In an election hustings event focused on higher education, hosted on 2 March by Times Higher Education, Universities UK, the Open University and the Higher Education Policy Institute, Mr Clark said that the Institute for Fiscal Studies had declared that Labour’s policy “would benefit the highest earning graduates when they are in their forties” and would “put universities back on the dependence of an annual handout from the Treasury”.
However, Mr Byrne argued that “the status quo is not an option”, claiming that the £9,000 student loans system would result in £280 billion being added to the national debt by 2030.
Mr Byrne said that the Labour Party still believed that “the right long-term shift is to a graduate tax”, despite announcing its short-term goal for a reduction in fees.
And he argued: “I don’t think the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives have said definitely that fees will not rise in the next Parliament.”
Mr Clark and Mr Byrne appeared alongside Liberal Democrat MP and University of Cambridge academic Julian Huppert, who said that “the fee cap I would like to see is zero”. He continued that he would want higher education to be fully publicly funded, “but I simply don’t know how to get funding for that, because I would not do so if it meant destroying quality”.
He argued that in the immediate future, available funding should be put “towards the cost of living…that is the thing that will get rid of the barriers students actually face”.