HEPI’s Director of Partnerships, Lucy Haire, reflects on party conference season.
Tariq (not his real name), the Warrington taxi driver who drove me the final 20 miles of my journey blighted by multiple train cancellations from London to the recent Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, asked what brought me northwards. I explained about HEPI’s Labour Party Conference fringe event on education policy, ‘Student Access and Success: What Works?’ Tariq lamented that almost every British person he spoke to was uninterested in political affairs, still less so education policy. He continued that in Pakistan, where he’d lived for most of his life, politics was a matter of life and death, so everyone was interested in it, and education was the ticket to survival, quite literally. While acknowledging that benefits like Universal Credit are not at all easy to come by in the UK, Tariq said that in Pakistan there was no government safety-net. He added that roughly only 40 per cent of the population receive even some school education, let alone higher education. Unicef reports that 44 per cent of five- to 16-year-olds are not in school.
All the panellists at the HEPI fringe event the next morning were supportive of the significantly increased access to higher education in the UK over the last two generations. Professor Sasha Roseneil, the recently-appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex, outlined her University’s multi-faceted approach to ensuring wider and fairer access to higher education, elaborating on the points she made in her recent HEPI blog, ‘Postcodes or personal experience? How best to encourage members of under-represented groups to apply to university’. Richard Brabner, Director of the UPP Foundation, described the findings of his organisation’s Student Futures project, whose final report and manifesto for better student success were published earlier this year. Brabner also highlighted the support that the UPP Foundation has given to a project with Chichester University and the charity Stonepillow to help people who have experienced homelessness get into university. Bridget Phillipson MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Education, emphasised the role of higher education as a public good. Meanwhile, John Blake, Director for Fair Access and Success, although positive about the increased availability of higher education, argued that higher education courses with very high drop-out rates were a disservice to student success and should be axed.
To ensure that the event, which was attended by more than 60 delegates, ran smoothly, I’d befriended the receptionists at the hotel hosting us. We got chatting about the themes of the session, and Kelly (not her real name), one of the front-of-house team, said that she had taken a year out from her Master’s in Architecture while she tried to raise some money and gain some work experience. Her colleague Lizzy (again, a pseudonym), added that she really wanted to become a doctor and knew that it would involve at least 10 more years of education, starting with Science A-levels. She said that our conversation was prompting her to arrange to discuss options with her family in the coming days to see what might be possible in terms of returning to education. Both Kelly and Lizzy were engaged with local universities which they said were great. Both these young women fall into the booming demographic which means that if we are to increase, or even maintain, current levels of participation in higher education in England, more than 350,000 new university and college places will need to be created over the next decade.
The Labour Conference was replete with events highlighting the positive impact of education, including further and higher education, on individuals like Tariq, Kelly and Lizzy, on communities and indeed the whole country. Graeme Atherton, Director of both the Centre for Levelling Up at the University of West London and National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), rounded up a fringe event on higher education participation with a rousing cri de cœur on the need to continue and expand transformative educational opportunities in cities like Liverpool, his birthplace.
At the Conservative Party Conference a week later, Policy Exchange’s Director of Research and Head of Education and Science, Iain Mansfield, was heard arguing against contextual admissions. Mansfield called for consensus-building, which was an interesting counterbalance to reports of some fringes that were highly critical of universities. While constructive debate about improvements and how universities can help people are to be welcomed in the round, it’s hard to deny the correlation between higher levels of education and economic growth.
HEPI colleagues who attended other higher education events, such as those organised by MillionPlus, reported the repeated messaging that universities add significant value in terms of creating jobs, increasing productivity and generating better health and wellbeing outcomes. To maintain and build on this, the right policies, regulatory frameworks and levels of funding are needed.
The UK currently has struggling productivity levels and is predicted to have one of the slowest rates of GDP growth in the coming months, second only to Russia which is ‘hobbled by sanctions’, according to the Financial Times. That education and training confer benefits on economies, both in terms of increasing GDP and reducing inequalities, is well-known, and differences in education and training levels are significant factors that separate developed and developing countries.
Policymakers: please speak to the people you meet, converse with those who serve and support you, and read the fact-filled reports, consultations and detailed case-studies that fill your in-tray. There is only one conclusion: we need more education and training at every level.