Growth will be 'policy priority' for Labour

New shadow higher education minister also tells Simon Baker that sector reforms must be 'paused'

November 10, 2011

Credit: Alamy
'Very ambitious' Shabana Mahmood wants universities and the government to do more to drive economic recovery

Labour's new shadow minister for higher education has used one of her first interviews in the job to argue that universities must be at the heart of plans to kick-start economic growth, vowing that the issue will form a major "policy priority" for the opposition.

Shabana Mahmood, who took over from Gareth Thomas in Ed Miliband's recent front-bench reshuffle, said the government had "missed an opportunity" in failing to use this summer's higher education White Paper to explain how the sector could drive growth.

She also backed calls for the coalition to pause its reforms on student places after the first year of higher tuition fees in a bid to properly "take stock" of their impact.

Ms Mahmood, who is 29 and became an MP only last year, joins shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, 33, in facing David Willetts, 55, and Vince Cable, 68, on the coalition front bench. She told Times Higher Education she was "very ambitious" about the role universities should play in fostering growth.

"That is going to be my main policy priority," she said. "If we are going to compete on a global scale, we're missing a trick if we're not placing universities and the knowledge economy at the heart of our growth strategy.

"I think the government has missed an opportunity in the White Paper to think about ways in which this could be achieved. It's not showing enough ambition for the sector."

The MP for the inner-city Birmingham Ladywood constituency added that "a lot of our competitor economies have the same financial issues because of the global banking crisis, but are placing higher education very much at the forefront of how they get back on an even keel and how they get their economies growing again".

Ms Mahmood suggested that Labour's approach would involve looking at how the government, universities and employers could collaborate more and whether the structure of the sector could be developed to enable such relationships to flourish.

On the coalition's reforms, she said that although it was too late in the admissions cycle to stop the introduction of the AAB and core-and-margin policies in 2012-13, they should not be extended to the following academic year until their impact was properly assessed.

"I think we're having a lot of change very quickly, and I will be backing calls for a pause to...see what some of the consequences of these decisions are," she said.

A passion for fair access

Ms Mahmood - an employment barrister who attended state schools in Birmingham before studying law at Lincoln College, Oxford - also spoke about her passion for improving fair access to higher education.

"My personal perspective has been looking at universities and policy [through] the prism of fair access. I have always been interested in issues around how students from my kind of background feel about going to university," she said.

However, she was clear that fair access should not just be about disadvantaged students entering elite universities: "We need a wider approach than that."

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