24 Sep 2019
Professor Lynn Dobbs, the Vice-Chancellor of London Metropolitan University, which is a member of MillionPlus the Association for Modern Universities, will tell a fringe event at the Labour Party conference today that under a National Education Service (NES) a Labour government should restore student maintenance grants and guarantee investment, in order to deliver a well-funded tertiary education system for all.
Also addressing the need to make part-time and mature students a priority, Professor Dobbs will say:
“Restoring maintenance grants and giving students more money for their living costs will address perhaps the most significant barrier to entry. Labour’s Lifelong Commission, which published an interim report in August, rightly stressed this as a top priority, and something that should be key to the NES.
Similarly, the need to focus on part-time and mature students is much needed … Despite the populist narrative of ‘too many students’, fewer than 50% of 30 years olds in the UK have had the opportunity to experience any form of higher education - this is a low bar that we should be seeking to leap over.
“Guaranteeing sustainable investment across tertiary education can foster collaboration rather than competition between universities and colleges”, she will say.
“We need a well-funded tertiary education sector as a whole – further and higher education achieving their shared potential together … MillionPlus universities have 13 further education colleges in their university groups, and work with many more than that, so we are close to the issues that further education face. Shifting money around within education only moves problems from one part of the sector to the other, and from one set of students to other, does not address the critical issue of a real-terms reduction in investment in all of our students – none of us should ever settle for that.
The old idea of what a university was is long gone … with pioneering modern institutions like the University of the Highlands and Islands, London South Bank University, University of Bolton, and – I’m proud to add – London Met too, – partnering with colleges and schools in our localities to benefit an even wider pool of students, helping create pathways to progression and social mobility.
“Making these institutions, and the whole of post-18 education, even more successful is the prize that is on offer to a Labour government – not least as modern universities are spread across the whole of the UK and can make direct positive impact on every part of the country.”
*****CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY*****
From review to revolution? Post-18 education in the National Education Service
Labour Conference 2019
Thank you very much for coming today.
Can I firstly point out that, as some of the more eagle-eyed of you may have noticed, I am not Bill Rammell, who has sadly had to give his apologies today. I am Professor Lynn Dobbs, Vice Chancellor of London Metropolitan University, and I am delighted to be here with you all today.
I’d like to start by thanking Zamzam and our friends at the NUS for the continued partnership with MillionPlus, I know we all very much value this relationship and what it means for all our students.
I would also like to thank the Shadow Further and Higher Education Minister, Gordon Marsden MP. As an organisation MillionPlus have worked with Gordon for many years now and there are few greater friends of the sector than he is. He has outlasted seemingly endless numbers of HE Ministers in his time, despite some having two goes, and I am delighted he is here with us today.
Today’s discussion, ‘from review to revolution’, allows us to pose the questions, and hopefully glean a few answers, as to how our higher and further education sectors will look under a future Labour government – particularly if an election is just around the corner.
For two years now the sector has lived with and debated a review led by Philip Augar, which was supposed to make sense of post-18 education and recommend ways to improve the system.
The end result has failed to please anybody, not least because this was politically driven and lacked the necessary independence and scope.
As we have seen in the past month, all parties – some more belatedly than others – are now committing themselves to increasing overall investment in education, rightly moving away from Augar’s unnecessary zero-sum game between different levels of education.
Restoring maintenance grants and giving students more money for their living costs will address perhaps the most significant barrier to entry, and we would very much wish to see this recommendation accepted. Similarly, the need to focus on part-time and mature students – the majority of whom attend modern universities or distance-learning institutions – is much needed. There have been mixed signals on these issues from the current DfE ministers.
Another review, Labour’s Lifelong Commission, focused on these key issues as well, and the interim report rightly stressed it as a top priority, and something that would be key to a National Education Service.
Also, more broadly, both reviews – Augar and Lifelong Learning – were right to focus on further education as an area of priority. We need a well-funded tertiary education sector as a whole – with further and higher education achieving their shared potential together.
MillionPlus universities have 13 FE colleges in their university groups, and work with many more than that, so we are close to the issues that further education faces. Shifting money around within education only moves problems from one part of the sector to the other, and from one set of students to others, and does not address the critical issue of a real-terms reduction in investment in all of our students – none of us should ever settle for that.
The fall-out from the Augar review has continued to push HE up the political and media agenda, and the Lifelong Learning review has posed other questions about how education can and should look, and how it must remain accessible to all.
That said, even more questions remain on the horizon, not least those that accompany what the Labour proposals of free tuition and the National Education Service might actually mean.
So could we, as today’s title suggests, move from ‘reviews to a revolution’ if Labour were to be in power, and what could this mean for all of us?
Now, revolutions can be good, bad, or a mix of both. Labour’s revolution aims at creating the former, with a new deal for students and a new approach to paying for HE. We are keen to work with Labour, as we have been since the policy was announced three years ago, to ensure that the party’s plans have the best impact for everyone concerned.
MillionPlus has long believed that it is not the business of a group of universities like ours to judge any system of funding as being intrinsically ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than any other, so long as it fulfils the requirements that will serve our students and the wider mission of HE.
But, the requirements of any system of investment in HE is pretty clear. The most essential of these is to guarantee the unit of resource invested in each and every student at all institutions. This means that no matter where you go and what you study you will have the investment in your education that you need and deserve.
The current level is pegged to the fee system, of £9,250, but even this isn’t enough for many high-cost subjects and requires a top-up from the public purse. This figure is frozen for the time being, so we currently experience a real-terms cut year on year, with next year’s students seeing less investment per head than the year before.
Ensuring we have funding levels sustained in real terms is crucially important. It is not just important on a principle level, it also matters hugely for social mobility and equality of opportunity. Letting this investment slip risks stratifying the sector to an even greater degree, creating a stark difference between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ as those that can afford to can keep student investment high using their reserves and other income, whilst those who cannot are left to pick up the pieces by trying to do more with less.
Modern universities don’t always have the endowments and property portfolio that some other universities tend to have – we were created by our communities in our present forms many decades ago through our local authorities, and we educate people from all backgrounds in those localities. That grounded, civic mission animates and inspires us to this day. Income from the graduate contribution through fees is crucial for what we do.
Guaranteeing that level of funding under a system without a graduate contribution is not an easy one and, as we have seen in Scotland, investment has been eroded, and tight student number controls have been imposed. This was true even at a time of economic growth and before the tumult of Brexit.
There is nothing to say that these problems could not be avoided, with sufficient planning and resolve from the Labour party in the drafting of its forthcoming manifesto. This is, of course, where the politics comes in, and we all know how crucial a policy this is, and how much it will need to be delivered on to meet the electorates expectations.
So, in any manifesto commitment from Labour in the forthcoming election it would be crucial to spell out in ‘black and white’ that the current unit of resource will be increased in line with inflation over the course of a whole five-year parliament.
It will also be important to confirm that Labour’s system wouldn’t necessitate the return of a student number cap in a way that would push down the proportion of people who get the opportunity to experience HE. Any move to do this, without the appropriate forethought, risks undoing much of the good work we have seen over the last few decades. As the demographic bulge currently affecting secondary schools moves towards the student-age population, an inflexible student numbers cap could see HE participation dipping quite significantly. Despite the populist narrative of ‘too many students’, fewer than 50% of 30 years olds in the UK have had the opportunity to experience any form of higher education, this is a low bar that we should be seeking to leap over.
However, there is a difference between a policy being delivered on time and one being delivered successfully, and we, as I know many other groups are as well, remain committed to working closely with Labour to ensure that when the time comes we can work together in the interest of all students. I know that Gordon and his colleagues are also committed to that end, and that gives me a great deal of confidence.
This all comes at a time when our universities have never been as successful or as important to the country and their regions as they are today. Though I’ve stressed our local origins in the course of these remarks, our universities have become global, they are European, they are national, they are regional, and they are also local. The links we all have to students, businesses, industry, research, here and around the world are staggering.
Underpinning investment has enabled not just our institutions to grow, it has also boosted our local economies, neighbouring companies, and developed real world research that helps transform lives. This all reaps benefits for students themselves as they have their horizons broadened and life chances enhanced.
The old idea of what a university was is long gone, and today’s universities, especially modern universities, are a world away from even those attended by people a decade or so ago. We continue to grow and to improve, while the success stories that have flowed from this expansion are all around us.
This expansion can even encompass more than the core university itself, with pioneering modern institutions like the University of the Highlands and Islands, the University of Bolton, London South Bank University, and – I’m proud to add, London Met too – partnering with colleges and schools in our localities to benefit an even wider pool of students, helping create pathways to progression.
Making these institutions, and the whole of post-18 education, even more successful is the prize that is on offer to a Labour government – not least as we are spread across the nation, and can directly impact on every part of the country. Conversely, losing this positive impact is also the risk we face if we jeopardise the post-18 education system.
We all want to see our system, including our colleges and universities, to succeed. Plus, we should look to see how the National Education Service could serve as a vehicle for this. Working together – to protect what our students’ need, whilst enabling the investment that makes us stronger – could make even the boldest revolution a success.
MillionPlus pledge to remain available to you as an adviser and to work with you to ensure the success of the policy. We hope, in return, that Labour, through the NES will continue to appreciate the dynamic and autonomous nature of HE; the complex task that lays ahead, and doing everything it can to ensure that when the time comes to implement policy, we are all ready, and we can deliver these benefits.
Thank you for coming along today and I look forward to discussing this with you in questions at the end.
Notes to editors