Labour’s Lifelong Learning Commission will look at longer-term collaborative and connected structures across education in the UK, while the party is “minded” to vote against any lowering of tuition fees arising from the government’s review but has not made a final decision.
Gordon Marsden, Labour’s shadow higher education minister, spoke after party leader Jeremy Corbyn announced the launch of the commission on 19 February.
The commission will help to develop Labour’s vision of a National Education Service, offering “free education from cradle to grave” (the party has pledged to abolish university tuition fees). The commission’s task will be to “devise an inclusive system of adult education to be implemented by the next Labour government that will transform the lives of millions and reskill our economy”, said Mr Corbyn.
Mr Marsden said that the commission would look at “connectivity” between different levels of education and also explore ideas from the recent Civic University Commission, led by Lord Kerslake.
The Lifelong Learning Commission is co-chaired by Estelle Morris, a former Labour education secretary, and Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union. Among its members are figures from vocational, further and higher education – with those from the last category including Amatey Doku, the National Union of Students’ vice-president for higher education, and Dave Phoenix, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University.
The future for universities should centre on “collaboration rather than the raw competition” envisaged by the Conservative government’s Higher Education and Research Act of 2017, an ethos that will be “less relevant for the success and health of universities in the 2020s”, argued Mr Marsden.
In a recent speech, Labour’s shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, outlined a plan to overhaul the powers of the Office for Students – the market-style regulator created by the 2017 act. This would including ordering the OfS to “avoid university bankruptcies” and would end the Tories’ “failed free-market experiment” in higher education, she said.
Mr Marsden said that her speech should be seen as drawing together arguments that Labour made during the passage of the legislation, including rejecting the idea that the regulator should have a duty to promote competition.
“The OfS is still a young organisation. It can develop in all sorts of different ways,” he said.
Mr Marsden said that he has had “positive conversations” with Sir Michael Barber, the OfS chair, and Chris Millward, the director for fair access and participation at the OfS. He added that the OfS should “press the access agenda as strongly as possible as well press the diversity agenda”.
With leaks from the government’s review of post-18 education in England suggesting that it has considered plans to lower tuition fees to between £6,500 and £7,500, Mr Marsden was asked in a radio interview aired last week about Labour’s stance on such plans. The government may struggle to pass any such proposal through the House of Commons, as backbenchers including former universities minister Jo Johnson have warned that fee cuts would reduce university funding, including support for access.
Mr Marsden said that his comment in the interview had been that “we are minded – words matter – not to be supportive of things that just artificially raise or lower fee levels”. But the party would examine the final recommendations “before we make an absolutely final decision”, he added.
Labour’s Lifelong Learning Commission will be “looking for structures that are going to last 10 to 15 years”, he explained. “We are not looking at a funding review that, however well-intentioned members of it are, the government sees as very short term…as some kind of electoral inducement.”