The Labour Party wants universities to consider whether they can “achieve more with less” on access and could take steps to tighten the rules on private colleges, according to Liam Byrne.
In his first major speech as shadow minister for universities, science and skills, Mr Byrne used an appearance at the Institute for Public Policy Research to set out a vision of science as the driver of a new British economy, calling for “a long-term framework for science capital”.
He warned that “despite [the strength of] our science base, we are not building an economy that is on track to win a race to the top”.
He also raised some specific issues on university finance: “I know that our universities and the stability of their finances are the key to our national success as a science leader – and right now, there’s an awful lot of worried finance directors,” Mr Byrne said.
“The recent revelations that [the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] has disastrously miscalculated student loan repayments confirms that a progressive and sustainable student finance system will require whichever political party is in government in 2015 to make reforms.”
He added that the “four big questions I want to explore with universities” include: “Are we using the money universities are required to spend improving access to the best effect? Can we achieve more with less?”
Mr Byrne also called for “a Prime Minister’s Initiative mark three” to strengthen the UK’s position in international education; questioned whether England has the right “framework for reimbursing high course costs”; and asked: “Does it make sense to give private colleges complete freedom to educate foreign students, with equal access to the student finance system?”
The lecture marked the 50th anniversary of Harold Wilson’s “White Heat of Technology” speech. Mr Byrne warned that “we’re simply not creating the good supply of high-paid, high-skilled, high value-added jobs that we need if [people] are to earn their way out of today’s crisis”.
Adding a call for universities to be engines of regional growth, he argued: “Our goal must be to ensure that Britain is not simply the world’s best place to do science – but the world’s best place to do collaborative science.”
He called on the UK to partner with the very best scientists from overseas – including China as a key partner.
And he said the UK should “foster better partnerships between institutions, no doubt led by our very best research institutions, in creating global federations that allow them to better share ideas, teachers, researchers and students. This I’m afraid will be an elite sport.”