Chuka Umunna, speaking at the launch today of a major report on the future of higher education by the Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank, also criticised the way higher education spending appears in government accounts as “smoke and mirrors” – suggesting that a Labour government would consider ways to revise the approach.
The report’s recommendations – many of which had been thoroughly trailed in advance – include a call for “many” further education colleges to be “given the ability to award degrees and granted the renewed use of the title ‘polytechnic’”.
The report, seen as important in the development of Labour’s higher education policy and titled A critical path: securing the future of higher education in England, was led by a panel of commissioners headed by Nigel Thrift, the University of Warwick vice-chancellor.
At the launch, Mr Umunna was asked by Vivienne Stern, Universities UK’s head of political affairs, whether a future Labour government would consider reviving the Prime Minister’s Initiative launched under Tony Blair which set “a clear numerical target for growth in international student numbers”.
“I’m certainly open to that and will talk to Yvette Cooper [Labour’s shadow home secretary] about [it],” Mr Umunna said.
He added: “My big problem with the government at the moment in this area is that our HE sector, as a strong and vibrant export sector, has been taken hostage by the Home Office. And it has to stop.
“It is doing deep and immense damage. We cannot afford for that to happen to a leading export sector, in the context of our balance of trade deficit.”
Mr Umunna was also told by Pam Tatlow, chief executive of million+, that any new approach to higher education funding would need a change to Treasury rules around the classification of loans.
He answered that there is currently “a lot of smoke and mirrors in respect of how spending in this sector appears in the accounts”.
While student loans were an “an upfront cost which doesn’t [wholly] appear in the deficit”, a graduate tax would be “an after the event charge which does appear in your deficit”, he argued.
On the polytechnic proposal for further education colleges “specialising in the provision of employment focused higher education”, the IPPR report says that “a differentiated title would protect a distinctive role for higher vocational learning that was arguably lost with the end of the binary system”.
It adds that “polytechnic status would be a mark of vocational excellence, sending out wider signals about the importance of vocational learning. It would declare that the university title and the university route are not the only form of high status in our system.”
On private providers, a key element of the current government’s approach to creating competition in the sector, the report says that degree awarding powers “should never be bought or sold, and the title of ‘university’ should be reserved for institutions oriented towards the public good”.