Memo to Labour: don't blow it

May 9, 1997

Dear Secretary of State, The THES joins the raft of contributors on the following pages in welcoming you and your deservedly successful party to office.

Your stunning victory promises a fairer deal for those who have gained least under the Tories. It promises a chance to modernise our constitution and our citizens' rights. It promises a return to probity in the governing party. It presents an opportunity for more con-structive relationships in Europe as the European Union tackles the difficulties of growing convergence. But above all, for us, your party's commitment to "a world-class education system, in which education is not the privilege of the few, but the right of the many", so stirringly affirmed by the prime minister outside No 10 Downing Street last week, gladdens the heart.

The THES would also like warmly to welcome your ministerial team and, particularly, Baroness Blackstone as minister of state for further and higher education. Lady Blackstone is, of course, well known to higher education. Not only has she been presiding over one of its more unusual institutions, Birkbeck College, for the past ten years, but she has also made higher education the subject of scholarly study over many years. She has personal, detailed knowledge of the issues facing universities and colleges, is well known to people working in them and will be able to hit the ground running in the style we are coming to expect of the new government.

Choosing to give the further and higher education brief to a member of the House of Lords could be a shrewd move. It was the Lords who derailed attempts to impose controls on universities under the Conservative government and, with so large a majority in the Commons, it is only in the Lords that the new government need be concerned at encountering any difficulties in this parliament.

Will there be difficulties? Very possibly. The euphoria of the past week, the joy at seeing an exhausted and discredited party swept from office, will not last forever. Already you are being urged to raise taxes so that inflationary pressures can be reduced without further interest rate rises. You will need the money to plug holes in the spending plans you have inherited. Not everyone will be pleased but they should not be surprised.

But for higher education we already have indications that matters will not stop there. At Education and Employment you have inherited, as we warned (THES May 2), a crisis in further education, where this week staff in London colleges were out on strike. Further, you will be wanting to get on quickly with reducing class sizes in primary schools and building up nursery education.

Money earmarked for these goals from ending the assisted places scheme will not begin to flow before September 1998 thanks to the canny manoeuvring of the independent schools in cahoots with the outgoing Conservative government. Savings from getting young people off the dole and into work cannot be expected quickly and not at all without up-front investment in training schemes, college courses and subsidised jobs. Indeed the only source of ready cash within the education budget in the short term looks like being the proceeds of the sale of student debt.

And even in the medium term privatising the whole loans scheme offers the best potential source of redistributable cash. People in higher education will have noticed with anxiety Frank Field's identification in an article in the Sunday Telegraph (May 4) of the Pounds 1.3 billion estimated saving from privatising the loans system as a source for additional welfare revenue.

As you eye these sums, you should be aware that it will come as a huge and speedy disappointment to your very many ardent supporters in higher education if the money raised in these ways is not ploughed back into their own service.

The Association of University Teachers is already hammering on your door asking that the cuts planned for 1998/99, which are menacing, be suspended and that you move promptly to set up a pay review body for higher education. These would be interim measures. You may regard them as special pleading and choose to disregard them.

But pause. Higher education has achieved great things in the past 18 years. Though it was little said during the election campaign, the expansion of higher education and the extraordinary productivity gains achieved through the hard work of staff was one of the outgoing government's most significant achievements. And the achievement was more than simply packing in more people at lower per capita cost.

New ways of organising university work to close the gaps with industry, local communities and employers were developed during these years. New subjects, new courses and new types of study have been developed. The number of second-chance students has increased markedly. All this work is now available as the basis for the kind of general development and restructuring expected to follow the Dearing report.

Here are models for regional development; further and higher education collaboration; applied research and technology transfer to industry. Though they did not intend it, the Conservatives did preside over the transformation of higher education from a small elite system to a mass system catering much more widely for the needs of a modern economy.

What is more, universities and colleges have continued, despite the fall in money per student, to be valued by the best off in society as providing the necessary means to a rewarding life - hence the assiduity with which the affluent seek the restricted number of available places (THES, April 18). This country continues to attract large numbers of students both from Europe and from further afield who see the advantages of studying here. It is the only part of our public education system which is already world class. Somehow, against the odds, the quality of what is offered has been more or less maintained. People have been hanging on thinking that come the election "Things can only get better". It would be a shame if, in your eagerness to attend to pressing matters in further education, schools and nurseries, Labour blew it.

What is needed? Most people in higher education accept that the whole structure of funding needs to be reformed. The expectation is that this will done reasonably promptly following the report of the Dearing committee in July. Many constructive ideas have been developed during the Dearing committee's deliberations, not least ideas for a Learning Bank. But these changes will take a while to set up. The detail will be complicated.

What is needed therefore is a little space so that these matters can be carefully considered. Rather than risk a bodged job or further deterioration and disenchantment, use at least a goodly chunk of the proceeds from privatising student debts and loans to stabilise funding for the next couple of years. Set up a pay review body to consider salaries: it will be cheaper in the end than letting the market rip.

If this is done the universities will be touchingly grateful and will not be tempted into precipitate actions on their own initiative.

If it is not, you risk losing the enthusiastic support of many creative people with much to contribute to building of the fairer society your party has promised and we all need.

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