Labour wants universities to “go further” in their city roles and be “absolutely critical” to industrial strategy, according to shadow minister Chi Onwurah, who described the party’s plan to abolish fees as essential for higher education’s civic mission.
The shadow industrial strategy minister set out more of Labour’s vision for universities as part of a plan to build a “high-wage economy” when she spoke at a fringe event at the party’s conference in Brighton on 25 September.
Meanwhile at another fringe event, Pam Tatlow, chief executive of MillionPlus, warned that plans to vary universities’ fee caps according to their graduate earnings – said to be under consideration by the government – would judge universities according to the social class of their students.
Ms Onwurah spoke at a roundtable event on universities, industrial strategy and regional growth hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute and UPP.
There was “a need for universities to go further” in their regional growth roles, she said. Ms Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central, said Newcastle University had put its city role at its heart in recent years, helping it to become one of the best performing universities in terms of graduates retained in cities to work when their courses are complete.
She agreed with the findings of a UPP report on this issue that “graduate retention is a critical symptom of the medium-term economic prospects of a city, and a driver for future growth, productivity and prosperity”.
Labour is looking at “the economic impact of universities and the economic choices of graduates” as an “integral part of educational and industrial policy”, Ms Onwurah continued.
“I’m not saying I have the answers in terms of specific policies…but I want to emphasise our vision of an economy where universities are producing high-skilled graduates and also working within local communities, businesses and schools to support the high-skilled, high-wage, high-productivity economy,” she said.
Universities would be “absolutely critical” in this field, she added.
The Conservative government had undermined “the civic aspects of higher education” by “commodifying the university experience”, the shadow minister argued.
“Labour’s plan to abolish fees will reverse this trend. And I think it is critical to the future of civic universities,” she said.
Labour’s approach to industrial strategy and science policy, Ms Onwurah said, was “highly influenced by the work of the innovation academic Mariana Mazzucato”, director of the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose.
It included a “pledge to build an innovation nation” with 3 per cent of GDP invested in R&D as well as “to create the highest percentage of skilled jobs in any economy in the OECD by 2013”.
She added: “That is about democratising science. So people, [including] working people in my constituency, feel the benefits of a rich, successful R&D economy.
“Evidently universities are an essential of achieving this goal.”
At a fringe event hosted by MillionPlus and the National Union of Students on 24 September, Ms Tatlow said that when it came to variation between universities’ graduate earnings, the “biggest determinant” was the social background of their students.
Graduate earnings data should not be used by the government to form policy on funding, she argued, as they were “not a measure of quality but a measure of social class”, she added.