Labour party conference 2015: debate focuses on abolition of tuition fees

New shadow higher education minister, Gordon Marsden, also warns of ‘TEF apartheid’

September 28, 2015
Labour placard

Labour will continue to look at a graduate tax and should have a “much wider” funding debate rather than just talking about scrapping undergraduate fees, according to one of the party’s backbenchers.

Paul Blomfield, the MP for Sheffield Central and an advocate of a graduate tax, made the comments at a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference in Brighton today.

Meanwhile, Labour’s new shadow higher education minister, Gordon Marsden, warned that the government’s planned teaching excellence framework (TEF) could create “an apartheid” between universities that teach and universities that research.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, said during his leadership campaign that he would abolish undergraduate tuition fees in England and reintroduce student maintenance grants at a cost of £10 billion.

Times Higher Education asked the panel at the event – hosted by Million+, the National Union of Students and LabourList – if they would try to persuade the party leadership towards a graduate tax.

Mr Blomfield said: “Jeremy himself has pinned a £10 billion cost on just dealing with undergraduate fees and maintenance.

“If we’re talking about a system that supports proper access to postgraduate taught courses, properly supports part-time students, includes the point I’m making about [reintroducing] educational maintenance allowances, we need to have a proper discussion about the balance between what the public purse can put in and what individuals’ contribution is based on their benefits. That’s always been my case for a graduate tax.”

He suggested that having people “making their contribution in proportion to what they get out of the system” would “continue to be part of our discussions”.

Earlier in the event, he called Mr Corbyn’s pledge to scrap fees “a noble ambition”.

Megan Dunn, the NUS president, said: “I have always been very clear that I am in favour, both personally and in NUS, of a publicly funded higher education system. And I absolutely welcome Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to that as well.”

Dave Phoenix, the London South Bank University vice-chancellor and Million+ chair, said that the key issue was “how you fund the totality of education” and the “appropriate balance of the individual versus the state versus the employer and when does that actually occur”, rather than “just picking off undergraduate or postgraduate or parts of it”.

Earlier in the event, Gordon Marsden, Labour’s new shadow higher education minister, further education and skills minister, said that although the party would be in “deep thought” on higher education policy, that would not stop it from “holding the government to account”.

He added: “We will make sure the debate on teaching quality does not become a Trojan horse for fee increases or creating an apartheid in the university system between universities that teach and universities that research.”

Mr Marsden was also asked if he could clarify the current party position on tuition fees.

“Quick answer to that: no,” he replied. “The reason being…we are reviewing all of our policies in every area as every sensible political party that has suffered a general election defeat in the way that we have has done.”

He added: “Nothing is ruled in, nothing is ruled out.”

Ms Dunn also highlighted the impact on students  and graduates of the government’s decisions to freeze the repayment threshold on undergraduate loans and to scrap maintenance grant, as well as of its plan to link fee rises in line with inflation to the outcomes of the TEF.

She added that there was “lots of room for NUS and the Labour party to work together” in opposing these measures.

Professor Phoenix said that “if a new funding regime is adopted it needs to consider direct investments to universities, provide adequate support for students, make sure there’s sufficient funded places for everybody with talent and ability”, as well as being sufficiently “flexible” to support part-time and workplace learning.

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