Labour’s policy on fees will be “a subject for discussion”, but the party will prioritise issues such as challenging the scrapping of maintenance grants rather than “hypothetical, theological” debates, according to Gordon Marsden.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, the party’s shadow higher education, further education and skills minister also said that the government’s current policies reflected a “hard-nosed market view” of higher education under Sajid Javid, the business secretary.
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, said during the leadership contest that he wanted to scrap student fees and reintroduce maintenance grants – a policy he costed at £10 billion a year.
But Mr Marsden said in the autumn that the party’s policy would be arrived at only after consultation inside and outside the party.
Is that review progressing? “We are not in government. There will not be an election, unless something extraordinary happens, until 2020,” said Mr Marsden, a former Open University tutor and editor of History Today.
“So let us start off by looking at some very practical areas where this government could row back from more marketisation and going more down the [student] loans route…We will take those opportunities to have that broader debate about what student experience is, where higher education sits in the whole economic landscape as well as the aspirations of individuals.”
Could policy on fees be another flashpoint between Mr Corbyn and some Labour MPs?
“You need to go back to what Jeremy actually wrote in his paper...where he talked about the idea of a National Education Service,” said Mr Marsden, referencing Mr Corbyn’s proposal during the leadership campaign for a lifelong learning system that would help people improve their “skills and understanding” throughout their working lives.
Mr Marsden said that this proposal was “not that far from” former Labour education secretary David Blunkett’s 1998 Green Paper, The Learning Age.
“I think the debate in the party – and Jeremy has made this point himself – needs to look at all aspects of that [learning] experience: the contribution of early years, the things that Ofsted [highlight] about weaknesses needing to be remedied in the mid-teens because of problems at an early stage.”
He added: “We do not want to have hypothetical, theological discussions…that do not address the issues that both David Blunkett and Jeremy Corbyn have touched on.”
But the scrapping of fees is clearly a priority for Mr Corbyn.
“The issue of what we do about fees and the period in which we do things about them, will obviously be a broad subject for discussion,” replied Mr Marsden.
“That great socialist Nye Bevan said that socialism is the language of priorities. The priorities that we set must reflect the needs of the 21st century and the breadth of the subjects we need to address.”
Mr Marsden backed Yvette Cooper for the Labour leadership, but was one of the MPs who lent Mr Corbyn their nominations at the last minute, getting him over the line to enter the leadership contest. This was to ensure a “broad debate”, he said at the time.
Does Mr Marsden regret doing that now?
“Jeremy’s election has brought into the party a great process of discussion and argument,” he replied.
“I want that discussion and argument to be conducted in a very fraternal fashion; to be rooted in the real concerns and experiences of the people we need to stand up for and fight for.
“Across the party, whatever divisions there may have been over particular issues, that is what we have to hold on to.”
In terms of higher education policy under the current government, Mr Marsden said that there had been a shift since the coalition government and Lord Willetts’ time as universities minister.
He said that the “broader ‘one nation’ tradition of Toryism is being edged out by a hard-nosed market view of education, which frankly is exemplified by Sajid Javid”, noting policies such as plans for provider exit in the Green Paper.
Mr Marsden said that Labour would attempt to force the government to change course on scrapping maintenance grants and freezing student loan repayment thresholds. Bringing in student loans in a number of areas – in higher education, in further education, in nursing education – was a “Faustian pact” in terms of the scope to store up future financial problems for the government, Mr Marsden said.
He also warned: “They are assuming everybody is going to sign up for these various loans. And yet the evidence from the further education sector, the one example we now have the most experience of where they’ve converted a grants system into a loan system…the take-up for those loans is less than 50 per cent.”
He called the scrapping of maintenance grants in higher education as “rushed, untested and potentially very socially damaging”.