The UK government has been urged by the Labour opposition to abandon higher education legislation after the nation’s vote to leave the European Union and focus on the “multi-layered threat” posed to British universities by Brexit.
Labour’s annual conference in Liverpool also heard claims from Gordon Marsden (pictured above), the opposition's higher education spokesman, that the government was holding back from guaranteeing the future status of EU students in the UK as a “grubby” negotiating tactic for Brexit talks.
The government is pressing ahead with the Higher Education and Research Bill – which will create a powerful new regulator for English universities called the Office for Students and open the sector further to for-profit and private providers – against a backdrop of uncertainty for universities caused by the UK’s vote to leave the EU.
“What we need to be doing is understanding the multi-layered threat of Brexit to our HE institutions,” said Mr Marsden at a fringe meeting on Brexit’s impact on higher education.
He singled out uncertainty over the future of research funding currently provided by the EU to UK universities, as well as research links with Europe and the impact of that on the wider international reputation of British universities.
Following the Brexit vote, UK universities have renewed their call for the government to remove non-EU students from its target to reduce net migration, which would allow institutions to recruit overseas students more freely.
Roberta Blackman-Woods, a Labour MP who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on universities, said that removing students from the net migrant target would be “the one thing the government could do to say we’re open for business” after the Brexit vote.
UK universities are also concerned that EU students – who are presently entitled to government-backed loans and have fees capped at the same £9,000 level as UK students – may be deterred from coming to the country by uncertainty about their future status.
Mr Marsden said: “What are we doing, keeping in our back pockets – as I’m told – the issue of whether we guarantee EU [students' status] for a bit of grubby negotiation which may not work? We should be taking the high ground. We should be saying ‘these people deserve to stay’.”
At a separate fringe meeting, Mr Marsden said the government was “desperate” to push through the bill and the “sensible” option would be to pause it.
Mr Marsden also criticised the bill’s aim of creating a regime in which universities that fail to attract students “exit” the market and fold as institutions.
“It’s more or less the argument that you can’t make an omelette without cracking eggs. But in this particular case the eggs that get cracked are the life chances of tens of thousands of students [and] tens of thousands of people employed in the system,” he said.
Malia Bouattia, the president of the UK's National Union of Students, told one of the fringe events that it was “senseless” for the government to press ahead with the bill following the Brexit vote. She also said that plans to let new higher education providers award degrees from day one of operation were “a risk too far” for students.
She claimed that an NUS and University and College Union national demonstration on 19 November, calling for free higher education and an end to university marketisation among other things, would be the “biggest in years”.