‘Robbins Rebooted’ is a good title for Liam Byrne’s first really important speech on higher education. It is consciously based on a pamphlet written last year by David Willetts (to which I contributed, to declare an interest). The Robbins report has gradually come to play the role the Beveridge report plays in some areas of social policy – in other words, no major speech is complete without a reference to it.
Liam Byrne is clearly impressed by the quality of our higher education sector, which is a good starting point for a relatively new shadow minister. It is also a very good thing for higher education that the Opposition spokesman understands the finer points of higher education funding, not least because he spent time as a Minister in the Treasury.
And his five guiding tests are good ones:
- financial sustainability
- a strong science base (by which I suspect he means the whole research base)
- student choice
- a focus on the skills base
- social mobility
There is more than a year to go until the general election, so this was not the speech to trail the manifesto in and in some ways it doesn’t tell us a great deal new about the Opposition’s position. They continue to oscillate, as they have for a long time, between keeping the current student support system but with reduced fees and a full-blown graduate tax. Sometimes, they say the former policy is for the short-term and the latter one is for the long-term. But they haven’t really explained how either will work. (When £6,000 fees were announced at the Labour Party conference in 2011, it was partly funded by cutting access spending; in Liam Byrne’s speech today, he bemoans how little is spent on access so he clearly has a different model in mind. We also don’t know how the graduate tax would work and there is, I think, no other country from which to lift a working graduate-tax system.)
But – and here’s a paradox – the speech does tell us something very important, which is how far removed the current Labour Opposition is from their policies in Government. If their 2015 manifesto does include ideas that flow from the analysis offered today, they are likely to be radically different from the Blairite higher education settlement. Three points stand out.
First, Liam Byrne makes a huge amount of the Government’s recent increase in the RAB charge (the proportion of money loaned to students that does not get repaid) from 40% to 45%. The RAB charge is indeed very important and, admittedly before my time, Hepi was the first organisation to put the Government’s original RAB charge modelling under a forensic microscope and to raise a series of questions about it. But it might be a little strong to claim that the new increase has ‘driven a coach and horses through the government’s higher education policy’. FE loans have a RAB charge that is much higher than 45%, but that is never mentioned. So do loans for part-time students, according to the official figures. Moreover, the RAB charged bounced up and down under the previous Government – reaching 40% at one moment – just as it has (and continues to do) under this one. If a future Government deems 45% is too high, it could offer a completely new system, as Labour seem to be arguing for, or it could simply repair the damage wrought by the coach and horses by tweaking the terms of the loans to bring the RAB charge back down. While there must be a point at which the RAB charge is so high the political pain of shifting to a loan-based system is not worth it, it seems unlikely that the level is even close to 45% – again, FE loans are instructive here. (NB This is all a different point to the question of when the Government starts to lose money compared to the old system as that is to do with the total resources flowing to universities. The reason the new system is getting closer to the costs of the old system is partly because of the RAB charge and partly because £9,000 is more than used to be spent on educating many students.)
Secondly, the speech is very critical of the fact that it is will take 27 years, on average, for someone to repay their student loan. (I’ve seen the figure before but I don’t totally understand the Maths here, as the majority of students won’t ever repay the entirety of their loan.) A graduate tax would almost certainly be paid for a similar period of time. The NUS version of a graduate tax had a 25-year repayment period and Ed Miliband has written about a graduate tax that might last for 20 years.
Thirdly, there is strong condemnation of alternative higher education providers, especially for-profit ones. Liam Byrne expresses shock that ‘The Department has no plans to regulate the profitability of alternative providers with courses of higher education designated for student support.’ The entitlement to loans and grants of students at such institutions was put in place by the previous administration, although it has been extended by this one. There is certainly a very strong case for looking again at how different higher education institutions are regulated – that is the theme of the last Hepi publication, Unfinished Business. But, given that higher education sits in the Business Department, the prospect of Liam Byrne sitting in his office regulating the profitability of private institutions is an intriguing one, when BIS is generally Whitehall’s greatest defender of the free market.
There is one final point to note. The Government set down a gauntlet on higher education when it promised to remove student number controls. We still do not know exactly how that will work or what the ultimate backstop will be, for example to ensure quality is maintained. But Ministers have been explicit that the policy will cover alternative higher education providers. If they were not included under a future Labour Government (and they were not directly covered in Australia when the cap was removed there), the impact of the change would be rather different.