This morning, Labour have announced a commitment to bring back bursaries and abolish tuition fees for some NHS staff.
This is smart campaigning because it is part of a wider strategy to focus on the NHS, and it simultaneously shines a spotlight on the current big fall in the number of people applying to train as nurses. (Although it’s also important to note we don’t yet know the conversion rate of applications into enrolments since the current fee/loan system was introduced and, until we do, we won’t know how many are actually entering training. Some people believe the drop in applications is concentrated among candidates who would have had less chance of securing a place anyway so won’t translate into a commensurate fall in new students. Time will tell.)
Bursaries and tuition fees are starkly different ways to fund training, so a real choice is being offered by the two main political parties here. No one can claim ‘politicians are all alike’ on this issue. Both mechanisms, bursaries and fees, can be used to fund people wanting to work in the main public services. But there are other ways of doing that too, including some halfway houses. A major new HEPI report out tomorrow will look at this issue and press one of these halfway houses for another set of public servants: teachers. The paper, written for us by the longest-serving university leader in the UK, will be available on this website (or in your in-box, if you sign up for updates on our homepage)
Today’s announcement also confirms the Official Opposition’s continuing dislike of high tuition fees. Between now and the election on 8th June, we’ll find out whether they plan to abolish, or reduce, tuition fees for other undergraduate students too. No one likes racking up debt but critics say abolishing fees would cost billions of pounds or lead to less well-funded universities or fewer student places (or all three). Others say that, if other countries can do it (including other parts of the UK), then England can too. No doubt such things will be fiercely debated at this week’s NUS conference in Brighton, just as they were in Blackpool when I was an NUS conference delegate in spring 1999 – the first year of Tony Blair’s £1,000 fees.
HEPI will be looking at all these issues and more at a conference
of our own at King’s College London tomorrow. There will be:
- a keynote address from Gordon Marsden, Labour’s higher education, further education and skills spokesman
- sessions with former Whitehall and Westminster insiders
- advice on how universities can best work with the media and
- the showing of an award-winning film about the state of higher education in the United States.
The day was planned before the election was called, but now we have even more to talk about. Don’t worry if you can’t make it: we have another conference planned for the day before the election when we will know even more about where the parties stand.