Labour’s shadow universities and science minister has criticised government ministers such as Michael Gove for supposedly favouring the Russell Group in their policies.
Shabana Mahmood also signalled that a Labour government could ask business to pay more towards the cost of higher education and allow students to transfer between colleges and universities.
Ms Mahmood was expected to deliver a speech titled “Working towards a One Nation higher education policy” at the Association of University Administrators conference in Edinburgh on March.
Although the speech offered no new detail on Labour’s central policy challenge - whether to pledge to cut fees or introduce a graduate tax - it did try to establish the party’s philosophical approach to the sector.
Ms Mahmood attempted to outline the policy implications of Labour leader Ed Miliband’s “One Nation” vision, which she described as “giving everyone a stake, sharing prosperity and preserving the institutions that bind us together”.
She was expected to say at the conference that the government’s “obsession with markets” had “boiled down all of higher education to mere transactions…Students are consumers, money is king and…higher education is essentially a private good”.
Ms Mahmood appeared to call for students to be given a greater role in university decision-making, governance and learning. She called for “a model built on trust rather than transaction”, which “would see students as active participants in their university experience” and in “co-creating better institutions”.
She suggested “exploring feedback models that go further than asking simply what students want, but that instead instigate real partnerships that let students and staff organise around issues that matter to them”.
On funding, Ms Mahmood said that “in such difficult economic times, the time might be right to ask if business has a greater role to play in [the] overall balance of funding”.
She criticised the coalition for scrapping the Aimhigher national outreach programme and said that a Labour government would “urgently restore” widening partici-pation as a policy priority.
And in an apparent critique of Mr Gove, the education secretary, and his emphasis on access to Russell Group universities, she said: “Our policy cannot simply be based on the prejudices…of government ministers…no one group of universities can provide a silver bullet.”
Ms Mahmood also said that mature and part-time students, whose numbers have dropped under the new fees and funding system, have been “left out of the question of participation”.
She said that collaborations between universities and further education colleges will have to “be the rule, not the exception”, with the state of the labour market bringing these issues into sharp focus.
“What’s more, we have the tools at our disposal: long-held…relationships across universities and colleges,” she added. “A system of credit that could be redeployed to mete out ambitions for flexibility and to strengthen lifelong learning.”