'Labour would have spared sector Maoist and chaotic reforms'

The government’s higher education reforms have created “unnecessary risk” for universities, the shadow business secretary has said in his first major speech on the sector.

December 2, 2011

Speaking today at an event organized by Universities UK, Chuka Umunna said that, had the Labour Party been in power after last year’s general election, tuition fees would have been capped at £6,000 in order to prevent the “black hole” that had emerged in the financing of the student loan scheme.

Criticising the news today that 24 higher education institutions have re-negotiated their access agreements to reduce their average fees – mainly by shifting financial support from bursaries to fee waivers – in order to bid for additional places, Mr Umunna said it proved that widening access was “very much an afterthought” in the new system.

“Fee waivers of course help the government’s mess as it reduces its bill,” he said.

“The chaos remains for students and the university system, a system which gets ever more complex and bureaucratic.”

Mr Umunna said that the reforms were “no way to treat our universities” and invoked the words of Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, who referred to the dismantling of the Regional Development Agencies as “Maoist and chaotic”.

“That could equally have applied to another area of his brief,” he said.

“Institutions have had to make decisions affecting their future financial viability not knowing how the rules will change month to month.”

He also said that universities had been put in a “ridiculous position” when they were forced to set their fee levels and access agreements before the publication of this summer’s White Paper.

Arguing that the numerous changes to the reforms had been designed to benefit the government, rather than the sector, he said that coalition’s response had been a long way from the “evolutionary change” argued for by UUK.

“‘Core and margin’ is designed to reduce the cost of courses to make up for the government getting its sums wrong – it isn’t for the benefit of students or the higher education sector,” he said.

The four commitments the Labour Party would make on higher education, Mr Umunna said, were: “Fairness for students, autonomy for universities, sustainable funding and universities playing a central role in the economic as well as the cultural life”.

“The bottom line is that universities are integral to our future success as a country,” he added.

sarah.cunnane@tsleducation.com

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