Labour is all ears

June 21, 1996

One of the tests of a mature political party is the ability to hold an open and sensible debate on important issues." There was an element of self-justification in Baroness Blackstone's comment at this week's conference on The Future of Higher Education. A Labour front-bench foreign affairs spokeswoman, she was about to express concern about aspects of the party's proposed higher education policy. But she was also right.

Open debate can easily become open warfare. Labour was scarred and exiled from power for a generation by the anarchic excesses of the early 1980s, with the left running amok and the right running away. It has emerged highly disciplined, centralised and risk-averse.

But lack of debate would be bad news for higher education. Fortunately, thanks to the device of the Dearing committee of inquiry, this does not seem to be happening. Labour's Lifelong Learning document produced last month does not seem to be seen as the definitive article. It does provide a basis for discussion, however. That process got off to a serious start with this week's conference, giving around 200 members of the higher education community a chance to catch the ears of both Sir Ron Dearing and the man most likely to be education secretary when he reports, David Blunkett. Both were urged to grasp so many nettles that heavy gloves may be in order.

The first nettle, of course, is funding. Tessa Blackstone, like the vice chancellors, has now come to the conclusion that tuition fees will be needed to provide a sufficiently high-quality education. She is also out of line with party policy in raising the question of whether there really is demand for renewed expansion.

Mr Blunkett is emphatic about the need for wider access. For him this is an article of faith. But he was less emphatic in the meeting about the undesirability of upfront top-up fees than he was in his press statements, and took pains to stress the harsh realities of public expenditure, as well he might given the economic situation Labour is likely to inherit as a result of Tory spending in the last-chance saloon.

A nastier nettle is the issue of research selectivity and its institutional implications. This emerged strongly as a matter on which finding a compromise will test Sir Ron's considerable abilities to the full. Sir Mark Richmond urged the creation of an elite British "Ivy League" - a term that has moved somewhat from its origins as a means of organising intercollegiate sport and might best be returned to them as a means of reducing confusion - of research universities. Mr Blunkett rejects an Ivy League, and will certainly be supported by the speaker who noted that the creation 20 years ago of such a group would have prevented the subsequent success of Warwick.

Sir Stewart Sutherland, perhaps more attuned to the political mood of the moment, offered a fleshing out of Labour's somewhat rudimentary ideas for research centres of excellence and regional groupings of institutions. His linked networks of research, mixed and teaching-only institutions, with much greater student mobility and joint staff appointments, is a reworked version of the Strategy for the Science Base produced by the Advisory Board for the research councils a decade ago. It could, however, require a firmer institutional funding base and a much better-rewarded workforce than Mr Blunkett is likely to inherit.

Labour needs to expose its policies to debate in much the same way that an academic article must pass through the refereeing process or a company must satisfy auditors. In higher education, after a long period of overcaution, that process is beginning. If it can be continued with the good temper that marked this week's discussion, the party will greatly increase its chances of getting it right in the end. Leaving the detail to Dearing provides a chance to avoid the trap of taking up rigid public postures too early.

Labour can expect a good deal of help. There is now a distinct sense of power shifting. Labour spokespersons find themselves the centre of attention. Their requests for advice are eagerly answered. Their policies are treated with seriousness, criticism is designed to be constructive. Indeed the risk they now run is of getting sycophantic rather than frank answers as those eager for advancement sniff the wind of change.

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