Labour shadow minister backs axeing fees and blasts free market

Emma Hardy highlights how abolition of student number controls has ‘hammered’ universities that provide places for disadvantaged students locally

January 13, 2020

Labour should continue to support abolishing tuition fees in England, while the “free market” sector approach of the Conservatives has “hammered” universities that provide places for local disadvantaged students, according to the party’s new shadow higher education minister.

Emma Hardy, MP for Hull West and Hessle, spoke to Times Higher Education after replacing Gordon Marsden, who lost his Blackpool South seat at the general election.

The former Hull primary school teacher and graduate of the universities of Liverpool and Leeds said one of her key priorities would be university funding. The Conservative government is yet to make a formal response to the Augar review, which called for the fee cap to be lowered from £9,250 to £7,500, with the Treasury replacing the lost fee income.

If the cap is lowered, “my worry is they [ministers] are going to ask universities themselves to find that additional money”, said Ms Hardy, a former member of the Commons Education Committee.

The abolition of tuition fees and the reintroduction of maintenance grants was a signature Labour policy under outgoing leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Should that still be the policy under a new leader? “I would argue that it needs to be,” said Ms Hardy. The current system in which the poorest students borrow the largest sums was “unfair” and “that system doesn’t work”, while the decline in part-time and mature student numbers under higher fees was a “huge concern”, she argued.

Ms Hardy put Labour’s proposed National Education Service and its policy to abolish fees in the context of the need to face up to the “fourth industrial revolution” and offer lifelong education.

She added: “I think we do need to look at investing in what should be our greatest resource, which is the skills and the talents of the people in this country…We’re not a great manufacturing country any more. Look at the industries that are creating the wealth, [for example] the creative industries. How can we get people developed in those areas, give them the skills they need?”

Ms Hardy also highlighted the effect of the abolition of student number controls in 2015, which opened up unconstrained competition.

Institutions such as the University of Hull that recruit large numbers of local students have been “hammered”, and the policy has “really reduced their funding”, added Ms Hardy, the daughter of teachers who was brought up on Humberside. “We can’t lose universities like Hull because of the service they offer to their local area.”

In abolishing number controls, the Conservatives wanted the most prestigious, and most selective, universities to expand. But “the government didn’t think about the fact that children from more deprived backgrounds are less likely to move away to go to university”, said Ms Hardy.

“They are more likely to attend university on their doorstep. You hammer universities like Hull, you are hitting that demographic of students.”

She added: “Putting the free market into education is something I don’t really agree with.”

The party’s previously announced proposal to replace the practice of using predicted grades to place university candidates – which works against poorer students – with a post-qualification application system would be “so much fairer”, Ms Hardy also said. “As someone from what I would call an average background, I was underpredicted on my results right across the board…Your place should be based on the results that you get.”

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