Labour’s Phillipson: English higher education funding ‘broken’

Status quo ‘not sustainable’ for universities or students and even Tory government ‘will recognise that soon’, shadow minister says

September 26, 2022

England’s higher education funding system is “clearly broken” and “needs replacing”, Labour’s shadow education secretary has said at the party’s conference.

Bridget Phillipson told a conference fringe event in Liverpool that the Conservative government would also come to realise “pretty soon” that the status quo cannot last.

At the 2019 general election under then leader Jeremy Corbyn, Labour pledged it would scrap tuition fees – frozen at a cap of £9,250, leading to declining funding for universities – and fund higher education through direct public funding.

There have been suggestions that Labour may seek to move away from that policy, but still scrap fees by introducing a graduate tax.

The Conservative government has been through a lengthy process of responding to the Augar review of post-18 education, which reported in May 2019, but that process is yet to result in any policy change.

Asked by Times Higher Education when Labour would announce its higher education funding plan and whether a graduate tax had been under consideration, Ms Phillipson told a fringe event hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi): “I think our current funding system is clearly broken. The system is not sustainable.

“And I think the government will come to recognise that pretty soon as well. I don’t think the post-Augar response is a response that will endure for the long term.

“And I don’t think it provides universities with the sustainability that they need.”

England’s student finance system has created a “completely perverse position where we’ve got a far less progressive system, with very high marginal tax rates for low and middle earners, at a time when even before the cost-of-living crisis that wasn’t sustainable”, Ms Phillipson continued.

“So I think that system is broken and needs replacing,” she added.

Labour’s shadow higher education minister, Matt Western, recently told the Universities UK conference that the party was “very close” to announcing a policy for funding.

Pressed by Hepi director Nick Hillman on when Labour might make an announcement, Ms Phillipson said: “You’ll hear in due course.”

At a separate fringe event, hosted by University Alliance, THE asked Mr Western the same question on when the party would announce its plan for funding higher education and whether he would back a graduate tax.

Mr Western replied that Ms Phillipson would be “making a speech on Wednesday” and it would be a “career-arresting move for me if I actually said anything this morning”.

But he added: “Clearly, it is a huge issue about sustainability of the sector. We’re looking incredibly closely, as you would expect, at the numbers and what needs to happen, given fees have been frozen and that’s leading to immense pressure on the institutions.

“So this is just not viable, not sustainable and needs urgently addressing – I would say more urgently than bankers’ bonuses,” Mr Western added, in reference to one of the Truss government’s controversial economic moves to uncap those bonuses.

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