Welcome from the shadows

February 23, 1996

Labour is looking forward to it, says Bryan Davies. Earlier this week Labour welcomed the Government's announcement of a fundamental review of higher education. We were consulted privately over its draft terms of reference and we look forward to its progress under the capable stewardship of Sir Ron Dearing.

Bipartisanship is rare and it requires an explanation. So let us be clear on a couple of points. First, a comprehensive and independent review of higher education is necessary to secure a consensus for future developments that commands widespread support. We need to advance beyond stop-go policies and ad-hoc initiatives. Yet the immediate crisis facing higher education is the result of planned budget cuts for which the Government alone is responsible and Labour is insistent that the buck cannot be passed to Sir Ron Dearing.

Second, Labour will submit proposals to the committee of inquiry. We welcome the opportunity to develop a broad national consensus but we will publish our own plans and priorities. Contrary to certain newspaper reports, we do not see the review as an excuse to defer difficult decisions. Quite the reverse: there are substantial issues to which we have already devoted considerable effort.

Voices have been raised - as periodically they are - that the review should seek to "consolidate" higher education. That, of course, is code for resisting further expansion. Labour does not accept this premise and the agreed terms of reference state unequivocally that "there should be maximum participation in initial higher education by young and mature students and lifetime learning by adults in so far as this can be shown to be consistent with the needs of the nation and the future labour market". Regrettably, we have had a freeze on access to higher education since shortly after the last general election.

A future system of funding for learners must widen access, as the Confederation of British Industry and numerous other bodies have advocated. Otherwise Britain will slide further down the track of a low-wage, low-skill, insecure and divided society.

But expansion is not simply a numbers game: it is about who participates. Social justice and economic prosperity demand that opportunities are available to those who have not traditionally participated in higher education.

Student funding should, as far as possible, be equitable between learners. The current system of student support discriminates on the basis of categories of attendance that are rapidly becoming obsolete. It also bears the scars of historic prejudice against subdegree learning. The review should look to a modern system of funding students that is flexible, fair and progressive, with contributions related to ability to pay.

The quality of teaching and research must be upheld and assured. Whatever the diversity of funding sources, we must guarantee that standards are maintained and improved. In this context, there is little prospect of the Private Finance Initiative delivering the capital funding for equipment and facilities that the Government's plans demand.

For Labour, the timing of this review has striking parallels with the landmark Robbins report. The Robbins committee sat during a period of Tory cuts to university grants, while Labour published its own plans for higher education and science in 1963, and it was the Wilson government that took up the challenge of expansion. It did so with priorities of its own, clearly stated by Tony Crosland when he established the polytechnics. Labour also pioneered the development of distance learning and created the Open University. In the new millennium, we will create a University for Industry, harnessing the latest technology to bring innovation and learning to the very heart of the workplace.

The famous Robbins objectives retain their broad relevance, but times have changed and we face new challenges. In today's knowledge-based and rapidly-changing economy, higher education has to respond flexibly to the lifelong learning needs of the adult population.

The student population has changed dramatically since the early 1960s and the process of diversification will continue. Increasingly crucial is the role higher education plays in economic and social development, particularly in regeneration efforts. This role - which could not have had the same importance in previous decades - is explicitly recognised in the terms of reference of the review.

These two functions of higher education are additional to the Robbins objectives and should be fully embraced by the policy framework for the sector if higher education is to take a leading role in the transition to a learning society. So what do they entail?

A stable and fair system of funding is central but it is not the only issue. One of the tragedies of the last decade is that so little serious thought was paid to what a mass, transformed higher education sector should look like. Expansion was squeezed out of a declining unit of resource and the considerable efforts of academic staff. Systems, structures and wider relationships remained largely unexamined.

We can now rethink and renew higher education. How can it respond to the challenge of new technologies, to the global demand to expand the knowledge base of the economy, and to the need to offer increasingly flexible learning opportunities to students? How do we safeguard excellence in research and still develop the full potential of an expanded system?

What more can higher education do to participate in wider educational and economic networks particularly in partnership with further education colleges - to foster innovation and change in society? How can higher education be responsive and accountable to a full range of stakeholders?

These are vital questions and there are more. They are addressed to the sector itself as much as to Sir Ron Dearing and politicians like myself. Let us have a vigorous and wide-ranging public debate. And then, let us have action.

Bryan Davies is shadow further and higher education minister.

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