Liam Byrne, Labour’s shadow universities, science and skills minister, delivers this message in a pamphlet published today by the Social Market Foundation thinktank, which argues that higher education is central to creating more high-wage jobs and ending the “cost of living crisis”.
He says a Labour government would prioritise finding a solution to the problem of postgraduate funding, and he calls for the reintroduction of a national access scheme similar to the defunct Aimhigher.
He also calls for “US-style community college partnerships so people can transfer their professional and technical degree credits onto a full honours programme at partner universities”.
And Mr Byrne says public research funding should be put on a “long-term footing” to support UK universities in creating “Star Alliances”, which he describes as “global research partnerships that bring together some of the best minds in the world to collaborate”.
The pamphlet offers no clues regarding Labour’s future policy on fees and funding. However, Mr Byrne does say the current system “simply isn’t fiscally sustainable in the years ahead”.
Mr Byrne’s pamphlet is titled “Robbins Rebooted: how we earn our way in the second machine age”. It follows the “Robbins Revisited” SMF pamphlet published last year by David Willetts, the former universities and science minister, marking the 50th anniversary of the Robbins report that heralded a wave of university expansion.
In terms of teaching, Mr Byrne argues that the debate should focus on “four basic system changes”: “transforming access”, technical degrees, postgraduate funding, and “the role of Massive Open Online Courses (Moocs)”.
On access, he poses the question: “How do we boost equity of access to university, resurrecting the principles of Aim Higher with a new 21st century way of doing business – a sort of Aim Higher 2.0?”
He also floats the idea of a “student premium” to “encourage university applicants from low income backgrounds”, highlighting suggestions by the Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank that “the money currently spent on access could be used more effectively”.
Mr Byrne also sets out more detail around the idea of “technical degrees” previously outlined by Ed Miliband, the Labour leader.
He says that “the priority for any expansion of HE under the next Labour Government will be new ‘earn while you learn’ ‘Technical Degrees’; degrees which you can study for, in a wide range of subjects, while you are in a job, drawing a wage”.
Mr Byrne poses the question of how to expand these degrees, “delivered by a new generation of ‘Technical University’ partnerships, connected to regional economies with far more University Enterprise Zones”, adding that universities could deliver technical degrees in partnership with industry and colleges.
Mr Byrne goes on to suggest the courses “would lead to professional and technical registrations, and include an element of management training”.
Postgraduates’ funding “must be a priority for an incoming government to review”, he also says. Mr Byrne praises the “compelling” model of a £10,000 loan for taught master’s students set out by the IPPR, as well as the “important alternative” of a lifetime loan allowance set out by the University Alliance.
Both ideas “funds permitting…need to be given serious consideration by an incoming HE minister in 2015”, he says.
On Moocs, Mr Byrne says that “the whole HE system/sector needs to think more carefully and proactively about how it delivers teaching and learning and how many different types of people can access it”.
Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, said that “whilst we agree that the limited amount of funding available for postgraduate study is a concern, we would urge caution on the idea of a single state-backed loan system for all postgraduate students”.
She added: “It is also important not to lose sight of the fact that the fundamentals of the student finance system in England are working.”
Michael Gunn, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University and chair of Million+, said: “Nine months ahead of the general election it is good to see political parties contributing to the debate on higher education policy. A challenge has now been set for other political parties clearly to outline the key areas they want to address in higher education and to begin work with universities in exploring them.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, wrote on the thinktank’s blog that the pamphlet was “testament to the genuine interest shown by Liam Byrne and his staff in maintaining a world-class higher education sector suitable for the modern economy”.
But he noted that the pamphlet did not answer the question about what policy Labour would adopt on fees. “It must be possible that the Labour election manifesto will envisage using money siphoned off from elsewhere in the higher education budget (e.g. by reversing the coalition’s commitment to remove the student number cap or rowing back on the additional support for students at alternative providers) to reduce the fee cap for those who do go,” Mr Hillman said.