Labour’s fees and funding policy will be arrived at only after consultation inside and outside the party, according to its new shadow higher education minister, Gordon Marsden.
Speaking to Times Higher Education at Labour’s conference in Brighton, the former Open University tutor also said that he had concerns about the teaching excellence framework as a “back door” to removing the cap on tuition fees.
Mr Marsden is shadow minister for higher education, further education and skills – having previously had a brief covering the latter two areas – in the new shadow team announced by Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader.
During his leadership campaign, Mr Corbyn said that he would abolish tuition fees in England and reintroduce maintenance grants, at a cost of £10 billion a year.
Mr Marsden, who worked for the OU as a part-time tutor for 20 years, said that the country was at “a stage of critical decisions about funding” of universities “and some of the really big issues around the black hole that’s developing over non-repayment of loans. Of course, if there are any suggestions to take us beyond the existing £9,000 cap that [could] potentially [cause] even more problems.”
Asked if Mr Corbyn’s leadership campaign pledge on fees was now Labour policy, he said that the party’s position would go “into a consultation process…and it’s really important we have a far more inclusive consultation within the party than we’ve had in the past”.
In this process, he continued, the party needed to take into account the contributions of “the trade union movement, employers and professional bodies”, as well as “experience within the UK – outside of England – in terms of how higher education is being delivered, but also experience beyond the UK”.
He said that there would be “a deep process of thought – and an open process of thought – both with our own members and with outside organisations”.
Mr Marsden, who previously served on both the Education and Skills and Business, Innovation and Skills select committees, continued: “I was very pleased that one of the things Jeremy Corbyn said during his campaign was about the need for a national lifelong learning strategy.”
He said in this context there was a crucial question around “the issues of funding in the UK”, a subject he said was “intimately tied up with issues around delivery and having structures for delivery that are fit for the 21st century rather than the second half of the 20th”.
Other crucial topics, he said, would be devolution not just to the nations of the UK but to “combined authorities” in the regions, as well as the role of Local Enterprise Partnerships.
These areas “will begin to play a more significant role in looking at higher education simply because that’s the direction of travel [in government], and significant sums of money will be hived off from central government”.
In addition, Mr Marsden said that he wanted to “challenge and hold the government to account where they’re bringing forward new proposals”.
Having previously felt “some frustration with the over-concentration” on research assessment, he said that he welcomed “the principle” of the TEF. But he added that the “devil is in the detail”.
He continued: “We will scrutinise it very carefully when it comes forward in the higher education bill. We will hope that it is not simply a back door for automatically taking the cap off.”
Mr Marsden said that he would seek answers on “what the benefits of that [the TEF] will be both for the teaching profession as well as for students”.
Another of Mr Marsden’s previous roles included 12 years as editor of History Today. Along with his OU work, this had meant that he “always had a strong interface” with academia but also a sense of “how you take it out to a much broader group of people”, a past that he hoped would serve him well in his new shadow post.
Meanwhile, Labour has announced that Yvonne Fovargue will hold the shadow science minister post, alongside her shadow brief on consumer affairs.