This article first appeared on the Guardian’s Higher Education network
At the 2012 Liberal Democrat party conference, 25p badges of Nick Clegg with the words “I’m sorry” went down a storm. The merchandise, hastily produced to mock the Lib Dem leader’s apology over his broken tuition fees pledge, seemed to sum up the party faithful’s disdain over the policy.
Fast forward one year, and the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow last week felt like a much happier gathering. The conference voted to keep the tuition fees policy under review rather than try to cut fees or abolish them. While the anatomy of the U-turn remains a sore point for the leadership, the grassroots are finally on their way to getting over the trauma of tuition fees.
So as the Labour party gathers for its conference in Brighton, what soul-searching can we expect from it on higher education funding?
Back in 2011, when feelings were still running high, Ed Miliband declared that Labour would drop university tuition fees to £6,000. This would mean a loss of income to universities presumably to be made up by more public funding.
This was always a questionable policy choice even when viewed through the lens of social justice. Why provide extra money from general taxation for higher education when the fee changes made in 2010 – backed by income-contingent loans – successfully shift the burden on to higher-earning graduates? Today Miliband’s promise feels like the politics of yesteryear. Applications to university are riding high. More young people from poor households are applying than ever before. So is higher education dead as a big political issue for Labour?
Definitely not. If Ed Miliband wants a higher education system that does an even better job of promoting social justice, then there are three ways in which he can do it.
1) More room
Around 100,000 young people who want to go to university can’t go because there aren’t enough places. Disproportionately the young people who don’t get in are from poorer backgrounds. So Labour could create more places. Because richer households will keep doing all they can to get their kids into university, the fair admissions agenda will only ever make a marginal difference. The best bet for achieving social justice is more room. Luckily our economy needs the same thing. And the demand is already there.
2) More money to live on
Not because students merit luxury but because rich students don’t need to work. So they have more time to study, read, talk, reflect, take internships. Give poor students that time too by giving them more money to live on.
3) An easier mix of work and study
University isn’t for everyone. And our economy needs high quality on the job training too. But at the moment that two-track approach to building skills means a social divide. More young people from poorer families do apprenticeships. More from richer families go to university. So Labour could make it much easier to go from one to the other.
Take the brightest apprentices after the first year of their course into university. But keep the connection to an employer, mixing study and work throughout the year. These are called sandwich courses and they already exist, though in small numbers. Labour could commit to expanding them.
Miliband has plenty of options to redefine his party’s stance on higher education. This week we’ll see if he’s planning to pursue them.