Labour has called England’s Office for Students “not fit for purpose”, saying that it would set an objective for the regulator “to avoid the bankruptcy of any higher education provider” as part of a major overhaul of its powers.
Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner was due to outline the plan, which would end the OfS’ duty to promote competition and replace it with a duty to encourage collaboration between institutions, in a speech at a University and College Union conference in Manchester on 16 February.
Labour also said that in government it would also require the OfS to “report on diversity” among university staff and in higher education generally; require university staff to be represented on the regulator’s board; reverse the Conservative decision to allow new providers to award their own degrees from day one; order the OfS to enforce university compliance with Labour’s commitment to a maximum 20:1 ratio between the highest- and lowest-paid in publicly funded bodies; and ban vice-chancellors from sitting on their own remuneration committees.
“The Tories have unleashed a failed free-market experiment in higher education,” Ms Rayner was expected to say. “They have created a system that goes to the very heart of their ideology – a system where market logic is imposed on public goods and where the forces of competition run rampant at the expense of students, staff and communities.”
Labour described the OfS – created by the Conservative government as a market-style regulator – as “not fit for purpose”.
When it emerged last year that the OfS had made a £900,000 bridging loan to a university in financial difficulty, the regulator said that it did so under powers granted to its predecessor organisation, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which will expire in July.
Sir Michael Barber, the OfS’ chair, has said that the regulator “will not bail out providers in financial difficulty”.
This week, the universities minister, Chris Skidmore, said in the House of Commons that the government would not “bail out” universities. “There is an expectation that providers may, in a small number of cases, exit the market altogether as a result of strong competition,” he also said.
Labour says that in government it would “set an explicit objective for the OfS to avoid the bankruptcy of any higher education provider and give the OfS the powers needed to provide emergency loans if they are needed for a provider to remain viable”.
Ms Rayner was due to say that universities “are not profit-making private companies that can simply be left at the mercy of market forces. Ministers cannot simply bury their heads in the sand when we’re faced with losing some of these vital institutions.
“Students would be left with immense uncertainty about their futures, and entire communities would lose one of their major academic, economic and social institutions.”
Ms Rayner was due to say that allowing new providers to award their own degrees from the outset “puts the education of students at risk, who would be gambling on a new provider with no guarantee that they would end their time at university with a valuable degree, or in fact a degree at all”.
On diversity, she was due to say: “Like much of our Establishment, our universities are too male, pale and stale and do not represent the communities that they serve and modern Britain.”