Labour’s publicly funded HE plan ‘could support’ sector expansion

Fringe event also hears v-c complain that marketisation forces universities to ‘waste’ a ‘huge’ amount of money on marketing

September 24, 2019

Labour believes that its proposed system of direct public funding for English universities could support an expansion of student numbers, the party’s conference heard.

The comments from Gordon Marsden, Labour’s shadow higher education minister, came at a fringe event during the conference in Brighton, which also heard London Metropolitan University vice-chancellor Lynn Dobbs warn that marketisation was forcing institutions to “waste” a “huge” amount of money on marketing to attract students.

The Conservative attack on Labour’s pledge to abolish tuition fees and fund English universities through public spending – costed at £11 billion a year in the party’s 2017 general election manifesto – has always been that it would mean the return of student number controls and, thus, the denial of access for some students.

Speaking at an event hosted by MillionPlus and the National Union of Students, Mr Marsden said Labour’s costings for the policy had changed in light of the reclassification of a portion of student loan outlay as public spending by the Office for National Statistics.

After the ONS announcement on reclassification in November 2018, “the people who are crunching the numbers have actually lowered that [£11 billion] costing”, he said.

Asked whether Labour’s pledge to abolish fees would result in student number controls, Mr Marsden replied: “The funding assumptions that we made in 2017 would, we believe…not mean, on the basis of current demand…that process [the introduction of number controls] going forward.”

To the question of whether Labour’s policy could fund an increase in student demand, Mr Marsden responded, “We’ve done the figures: the ONS redesignation…will give us more elasticity in that area.”

He said that the question should be directed “to our Treasury team”, but added that “our feeling at the moment is yes”.

Mr Marsden also said that last year’s university staff strikes over plans to reform pensions provided by the Universities Superannuation Scheme were partly “a proxy for increasing frustration…against the centralisation of decision-making in vice-chancellors’ departments, against marketisation…and also against the extreme disparities in salary between those people at the top and people starting out at the bottom”.

He added that “there needs to be reform in those areas, and we need to encourage that reform”.

A Labour government, Mr Marsden continued, would have a “very clear intention to try to get as rapidly as possible” higher education, further education and skills “working together in a way they have never had to work together before”.

Professor Dobbs, responding to a question about the impact of marketisation, said “some universities” had expanded student numbers on cheaper-to-provide “chalk and talk” classroom-based subjects “in order to fund their medical schools”.

Meanwhile, “other universities have lost numbers and had to contract or have restructuring exercises” following the advent of competition between institutions for student numbers.

She continued: “The biggest thing is how much we have to spend on marketing. It’s the students’ money [or] the country’s money. In a market system, in order to be able to survive, let alone grow, the money that’s wasted on the market is huge.”

Professor Dobbs described the teaching excellence framework as “built on sand”, criticising the measurement of student disadvantage through POLAR data rather than the Indices of Multiple Deprivation.

She said that in numerous discussions with parents and students at open days, she had “never heard anybody mention it [the TEF] – and we spend so much money on it”.

Zamzam Ibrahim, president of the NUS, who also spoke at the event, said that in higher education “the market is simply broken” and has “let students down”.

She criticised the way universities were “pitted against each other, fighting for every student”, arguing that “the focus on the experience that students have at university is massively affected” by such competition.

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