Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Preparing for Government again: how the higher education sector needs to prepare for the next Labour administration

  • 25 November 2022
  • By Professor Colin McCaig

This guest post has been kindly written for HEPI by Colin McCaig, Professor of Higher Education Policy in the Sheffield Institute of Education, who has 20 years’ experience in education policy research. 

The Labour Party is ahead in the polls and has been since December 2021. With little or no economic ‘good news’ coming down the pipeline in the next couple of years, many commentators now anticipate a Labour government for the first time since 2010. That was, of course, an era before graduates had to take on the full weight of £9,000 fees, before the encouragement of hundreds of new higher education providers and the removal of student number caps – the demand-led system we have had since 2015-16 – designed to create a fee-distribution that would theoretically lower average fees and make the subsidised loans system affordable. It was a time before the Teaching Excellence Framework, the Higher Education & Research Act (2017) and the unwanted attentions of a market-regulator, the Office for Students, were imaginable.

While the marketisation of higher education has a long gestation and the 1997 to 2010 Labour Governments played a big role in its development, as I have written about here and here, the last 12 years have been a period in which confidence in the self-funded tuition regime and the financing of the system has become increasingly contentious and thus politically salient.

So attention naturally turns to what the higher education sector and its attendant policy community can expect from a future Labour government.

  • How will it confront the difficult decisions on tuition fees and student support;
  • To what extent will Labour pivot towards a more skills-focused post compulsory education system?
  • What role do Labour envisage for HE providers in the levelling up agenda?
  • Within the policy community, whose voices and which think-tanks are going to hold most sway with the Labour leadership?

Lessons from the past

Twenty-five years ago, I was a PhD student at the Department of Politics, University of Sheffield, provided with access to ‘new Labour’ policymaking process by David Blunkett MP, then the Shadow Education Secretary and an alumni of our department. Some of the context for my research is strikingly familiar today: Labour out of power since 1979, but consistently ahead in the opinion polls since the Conservative government was forced to leave the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, and even more so since the accession of Tony Blair as a new, reformist party leader in 1994.

John Major’s government was continually mired in leadership challenges and scandals – cash for questions and the usual sexual peccadillos were regular news features – as the Government’s authority faded away. Meanwhile, in higher education, there was a looming crisis of unaffordability after a decade or more of rapid expansion and the unification of the former binary system in 1992, which created a whole swathe of new ‘post-1992’ universities from former polytechnics and colleges of higher education (F&HE Act). By 1996, Education Secretary Gillian Shephard had asked Lord Dearing to report on how the new system could be funded, and indeed to consider the future size and shape of the sector, with the proviso that he should not report until after the 1997 election. 

There was a widespread consensus – within the higher education sector as well as among policymakers – about the need to find a new way of funding the expanding system, and it would fall to the next government to introduce something likely to be highly unpopular with the public: students were going to be expected to contribute, for the first time in decades, to the cost of their own education. For Labour to have to introduce fees would be particularly problematic – the party of wider opportunities for the poor and disadvantaged would have to sell self-funded-tuition as part of a social justice-enhancing package of reforms to its left flank, simultaneously gaining the votes of middle-class former Tory voters while threatening the ultimate middle-class benefit of free higher education for their children.

Now, here in the 2020s, Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party faces a similar conundrum, and it is far from clear that the leadership has begun the process of moving official policy away from the stance of the 2017 and 2019 manifestos, which effectively promised the abolition of fees. This had proved to be electorally popular for Jeremy Corbyn’s Opposition, especially in 2017 when there were reported surges in turnout in constituencies with high numbers of students. The risk of going into the next election with a manifesto committed to abolition and then having to renege on that post-election is to be consumed by the sort of opprobrium that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats faced when they had to reverse their pledge on fees as part of the price of joining the Conservatives in Coalition after 2010. We all remember how that went.

If Labour is going to shift its position, it needs to be doing some serious thinking and internal pitch-rolling and – crucially – some serious engagement with the higher education policy community, including vice-chancellors, to square off opposition and build a consensus before the next General Election. That, after all, is what new Labour did in the 1995 to 1997 period, having secured supportive votes at both the 1995 and 1996 Annual Conferences: the 1995 vote not to reject loans for maintenance and the 1996 vote not to reject income-contingent loans (ICLs) were key, and gained support from Labour Students and the Socialist Education Association internally and the NUS externally. Yet the Labour Party leadership still had to ride out a storm of protest when it did announce the new position on student self-financing just days before Dearing’s own proposals were published in July 1997. 

New Labour wanted to exempt low-income families from the new (£1,000) fees and abolish maintenance grants; Dearing wanted a flat-fee £1,000 paid by all, but with maintenance grants retained, which would have brought a lot more money to institutions but greater cost to the Treasury. Furthermore, Labour in Opposition had been deliberately vague about the distinction between income-contingent loans for maintenance (introduced in 1990) and for the increased number of university places in its key pre-election policy statement Lifelong Learning (1996) and – crucially – had raised ICL specifically in the context of opposition to ‘top-up’ or variable fees that the more selective universities and some of their representative bodies were lobbying for (partly justified by their on-average higher costs).

Fear of ‘top-up’ fees charged by Russell Group institutions was a legitimate concern for those on the left who wanted to see access democratised through expansion. On the other side of the ledger, the Association of University Teachers (AUT, representing staff in older, pre-1992 universities) sought to differentiate their offer from the preponderance of former polytechnics as its submission to Dearing made clear: 

The advent of single formulae and the cultural wish of newer universities to look in almost all respects like older ones has created mission drift and a narrowing of perspective. We regret this trend.

QSC/CVCP A Special Digest Report: what they said to Dearing, The Open University, 1997, p.12

New Labour’s policy construct effectively introduced something it considered inevitable, if regrettable, for a system that had to expand for social justice as well as human capital reasons and was aided by the spectre of something ‘worse’ – potentially much higher fees for access to the most prestigious universities. Shadow Higher and Further Education spokesperson Bryan Davies was able to reshape the agenda for internal audiences:

There are still sections of the party which regard grants as part of the welfare state, and the argument is based on the premise that inadequate resources are the chief reason why people do not go into higher education. But this is not so. The real reason is that access is severely restricted.

interview with the author – see Preparing for Government: Education policymaking in the Labour Party, PhD Thesis, University of Sheffield, 2000, p.287

Trading off funding and access in this way put pressure back on those within the party that wanted to restrict access so the middle classes could continue to get free higher education. As Blunkett said to me at the time: ‘why should a bin-man pay taxes to fund an education his own children would never get to benefit from?’ Squaring the party is, of course, only half the job for an aspiring opposition; they also have to engage with and shape the wider policy community and think of the electoral consequences. 

The internal policy process and the changing policy community

During the New Labour Opposition period from 1994 to 1997, Labour frontbenchers began to exercise more discretion and autonomy in those they would listen to for advice. Partly this took the form of constitutional changes in the party’s policymaking process. The National Policy Forum (NPF) reforms (actually in train during the John Smith leadership, 1992-94) were designed to allow the leadership to develop and ratify policy ahead of Annual Conference (already defanged since John Smith secured ‘One Member, One Vote’ reforms at the 1993 conference). In many policy areas the NPF process enabled a distancing from ‘producer interests’, which in the case of higher education policy were generally external, although it did also allow them in effect to bypass any critical input from party structures, such as affiliated unions, Constituency Labour Parties and the Socialist Education Association. The overall effect of empowering frontbenchers at the expense of the wider party membership steepened the hierarchy of influence and weakened party democracy. Notably, from 1994 the phrase ‘free at the point of delivery’ began to be used in internal unpublished discussion papers in relation to university funding, although electoral caution prevented it seeing the light of day. 

External to the party, during the 1994 to 1997 period and as the likelihood of a Labour government became clearer, many organisations that we would consider as forming the policy community – educational associations and unions, think tanks and even the Committee for Vice Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) – began actively to employ or seek out different advisers as the political winds began to shift.

Professor Gareth Roberts, Chair of CVCP, was clear that Labour ‘will definitely not rule out tuition fees in the manifesto’ six months prior to the election (interview with author, McCaig 2000, p.244) and had identified 27 vice-chancellors who were party members in 1996 for a working group. My thesis – which looked at education policymaking across the range, from primary, secondary and further education and training as well as higher education – found this to be a general pattern among policy network organisations, routinely recruiting officials with Labour affiliations: policy community networks are often ephemeral and fluid, but never more so than when a change of government begins to look inevitable. The party begins to look more widely for ideas and community shifts its gaze to follow the power. 

The task for the Labour leadership now

The lesson for the next Labour administration is that they will have to take some political flak, but if the internal arguments have already taken place prior to a statement appearing in the manifesto, and the putative new Cabinet are signed-up to new measures as part of an overall governing package and mandate, it will be much easier to ride out attacks from external noises.

In many ways the policymaking reforms of the new Labour period make it easier for frontbenchers today; there isn’t that taint of ‘denied democracy’ that was still keenly felt in the late 1990s. On the other hand, the nature of the policy shift on tuition fees is arguably more difficult for the current leadership than it was for the new Labour ascendants, because the 2017 ‘zero-fees’ position was markedly different to the reduced fees (of £6,000) policy of Ed Miliband’s 2015 manifesto.     

In other ways the task – the wider task of reforming the funding of higher education – is simpler this time round, not least because the Augar review and its implications are much narrower, more prosaic and technocratic. Economic levers can be pulled, behaviours incentivised or discouraged, within our essentially neoliberal regulatory market system without having to re-imagine the entire meaning and purpose of higher education. 

However, an incoming Labour government would face far worse economic outlook and prospects than New Labour did in 1997 yet work within the same human-capital assumptions around skills needs. Indeed, the Overton window is relatively narrow at this point, framed only by the possibilities of number controls or Minimum Eligibility Requirements for undergraduate degree programmes to divert applicant-consumers towards vocational skills. However, that is not going to land well when closing off access to those from low-income, social care and (some) non-white backgrounds, traditionally more likely to achieve the lowest UCAS tariff points. It could threaten the gains of widening participation work over several decades. At some stage, a Minister is going to have to stand up in Parliament and declare a reduction in the number of disadvantaged students in the system a shining policy success.

Equally, if the demand-led, cap-free system is attenuated in any way, especially if to appease those who believe a narrowing of participation is better for the prospects of the lucky ones that can afford to attend, a future Labour Government is going to have to work hard and think radically, perhaps echoing David Blunkett: ask why those that can no longer aspire to a university degree place should have to pay taxes so that others can? Even more radically, if the system is to be restricted, Labour may face pressure to explain why it is up to autonomous institutions alone to decide who to let into a higher education system at least part-funded by all taxpayers?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *