When John Denham delivered his speech on higher education to the RSA in January 2014, we described it as ‘the most interesting set of ideas on higher education from any Labour politician since the last election.’ That accolade must now be shifted to the new pamphlet, Robbins Rebooted, by Liam Byrne, Labour’s Shadow Higher Education Minister, which is published today. The title is an obvious nod to the Robbins report of 1963, but additionally signals a riposte to David Willetts’s Robbins Revisited pamphlet from October 2013, which was also published by the Social Market Foundation.*
Wide-ranging and well-informed, with a broad historical sweep, Robbins Rebooted reflects hundreds of conversations the Labour higher education team has had with those across the sector in recent months. People don’t always know how scandalously few resources shadow teams have, and thus how easy it is for them to set off at half-cock. But that hasn’t happened here and the breadth of the pamphlet is a testament to the genuine interest shown by Liam Byrne and his staff in maintaining a world-class higher education sector suitable for the modern economy.
Talking to the higher education sector and then reflecting what you hear back would not amount to much of a programme, of course, given that the sector does not speak with one voice. But there is also something much more instructive here: a positive Labour narrative about the importance of higher education to the UK’s national life and economic future.
The best summary of this is on page 27:
If we want a model of more inclusive growth, where more people earn more – at the top of the hourglass, then we need a higher education system that helps to build better jobs and equips people with the skills for high skilled, high value-added, non-routine jobs.
The conclusion of the pamphlet provides more detail on the overarching vision, and it is in many ways an enticing one.
Imagine a country where everyone went to a school that was in some kind of partnership with a university – a partnership that parents knew well enough to talk about in the playground. Where there was a clear route to an affordable degree through A levels, but also through an apprenticeship organised in the first instance by the city or country apprenticeship agency in partnership with employers offering highly skilled jobs; where our best research universities were anchors to global networks of science and innovation, and around them, eco-systems of entrepreneurial start-up firms were growing; where a local council’s economic development plans were completely integrated with the work of the local university and their partnerships with local entrepreneurs and SMEs, offering shared research platforms that helped local companies innovate faster, growing sales and margins. Where far more were free to study to post-graduate levels of education, and where genuinely everyone, no matter where they were born in life, was able to get to a degree level of skill and the middle class life it can unlock.
The pamphlet does address some genuine problems in higher education and the press release helpfully lists the five policies being adopted on the back of the analysis:
1. ‘Technical Universities’, a collaboration of employers, major university science and engineering departments and colleges, offering students the chance to study a new ‘earn while you learn’ ‘Technical Degree’.
2. A revolution in links between colleges and universities based on the US-style community college movement.
3. Reform of research funding to support British universities in creating global ‘Star Alliances’ of the world’s best scientists with longer term research support.
4. A big increase in university enterprise zones to better link universities to regional growth.
5. A new revolution in access to higher education, with a new national advice service to support young people into higher academic and technical education, support for university-school trusts, an expansion of the Open University’s Massive Open Online Courses and a new partnership between the Workers’ Education Association and UnionLearn.
I daresay not everyone in the Labour Party will welcome the comparison but, in many ways, Liam Byrne’s approach towards higher-level technical skills as part of a wider industrial strategy is strongly reminiscent of Vince Cable’s views, outlined at some length in an important and rather personal speech – also rooted in history – from April 2014 entitled ‘Where next for further and higher education?’ The two documents should be read together.
No think-tank pamphlet ever contains all the answers, so don’t expect Liam Byrne’s one too. There is a commitment to long-term research funding that is hard to take completely seriously given it has no figures applied to it. There are warm words about giving students a ‘genuine choice’, but a lack of clarity over how different the new ‘earn while you learn’ degrees are from existing offers. There is praise of the community college model as an answer to the tricky transition between short and long degrees, without any recognition of the woeful transition rates among community college students.
But the pamphlet does not stand or fall on any of these points and there is time for those working in the sector to discuss them with Liam Byrne and his team, who want to continue their conversations. In the end, one’s attitude to the overall strategy, as SMF Director Emran Mian hints at in the pamphlet’s Introduction, is likely to be determined by the degree to which you think Government should lead / direct / instruct higher education institutions to work together on delivering national priorities. This is not a laissez-faire document.
Notably, the pamphlet does not answer the question that is at the front of many people’s minds when they consider Labour’s higher education policy: whether the party will stick to their position of reducing the undergraduate tuition fee cap to £6,000 as a prelude to introducing a graduate tax. That issue is unlikely to be resolved before the party conference season begins in a few weeks’ time, but it does need to be resolved then if the party is to have time to sell whatever their final policy package is to the country before the May 2015 general election.
Tellingly, nothing in the pamphlet suggests they are about to change course – indeed it suggests the Labour Party is joining the growing chorus, set off originally by CentreForum, that calls for the income-contingent loan model to be extended to some postgraduate courses.
It must be possible that the Labour election manifesto will envisage using money siphoned off from elsewhere in the higher education budget (e.g. by reversing the Coalition’s commitment to remove the student number cap or rowing back on the additional support for students at alternative providers) to reduce the fee cap for those who do go.
The polls have long had Labour ahead. So anyone who cares about higher education and what might happen in the event of a Labour Government should read Liam’s pamphlet – and respond to the questions therein.
* A few days before the publication of the Robbins report, another official report was published entitled Half Our Future. It is forgotten today but focused on those unlikely to take the elite academic pathway then available. Now that around half of all young people go to university and given that this pamphlet is designed to open up opportunities to the other half, the Robbins report is perhaps not the only education report from 1963 to which this forward-looking pamphlet harks back.