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Smaller, flexible, more localised higher education provision – the big theme from the Labour Party Conference

  • 13 October 2023
  • By Rose Stephenson

I’ve just wrapped up three days at the Labour Party Conference, which took place at the stunning Liverpool Docks. As well as Chairing HEPI’s own event – sponsored by the University of Birmingham, Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sussex – which outlined the manifestos of three UK Vice-Chancellors, I’ve been on the hunt for the number one higher education policy theme from this year’s conference.

Echoing the blog last week by Josh Freeman, Policy Manager at HEPI, which focussed on the Conservative Party Conference, the words university and degree were rarely heard. Perhaps, at the big-picture national policy level, there is an ambivalence driven by, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. The only exception to this was, unsurprisingly, around funding.

So, what were we talking about? The number one, big theme that came out of conference in terms of higher education was:

‘Education institutions need to work together, in their local area, to plug the skills gap. This provision needs to be flexible, modular, and life-long.’

Ruskin College held a brilliant evening event with Labour’s Council of Skills Advisors where Rachel Sandby-Thomas, Registrar at the University of Warwick, nailed the skills issue, stating:

It seems so obvious that I shouldn’t have to say it, but the more skills people have, the better it is for productivity and the economy. There is a need for a local, regional, and national strategy that goes from cradle to grave.

Kevin Rowan Head of Organisation and Services at the Trades Union Congress, called for the return of modular, work-placed skills education, which would allow people who struggle to access lifelong learning the most, to engage in upskilling. Kevin was clear that this would need to be provided alongside guidance, support, and encouragement. His experience of the impact of previous successful policies in this area on increasing workplace attendance and kick-starting a life-long relationship was compelling.

David Blunkett, former Education and Employment Secretary, went further, suggesting that:

In a heady third term of Labour, people might have access to individual learner accounts, which – like pensions – they would be auto enrolled into and receive employee contributions to.

Some of these discussions felt quite separate to the traditional idea of higher education; 18- and 19-year-olds leaving home to live in campus and study full time.

Praful Nargund, a Labour Party Councillor in the London Borough of Islington, touched on this, stating that Britain is not going to create the right workforce for today’s economy if we don’t embrace lifelong learning. He suggested that the government should set areas of focus for the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE), including in digital and green skills. Praful added that any country that cracks lifelong learning will be a successful global competitor.

There were plenty of calls for flexible, modular, transferable life-long learning. The LLE has the potential to facilitate this, but as Gordon Marsden, former Minister for Higher Education, Further Education and Skills pointed out, in its current form, the LLE risks being ‘semi-skimmed’. The barriers to truly using the LLE to provide the flexible education were discussed, including the Regulatory Framework that was developed with an almost exclusive focus on 3- or 4-year, full-time undergraduate degrees. (HEPI has previously published a policy note which covers this topic: Does the Lifelong Loan Entitlement meet its own objectives?)

Alongside the discussions of lifelong learning and skills, there were calls for an aligned tertiary system; further and higher education working together, possibly over seen by the same regulatory body. Some colleagues noted that they were jealous of the Welsh system, but that this would be impossible to replicate given the scale of both sectors in England. Given Kier Starmer’s announcements on devolution, perhaps autonomy in local areas will allow for a greater facilitation of this. As outlined in the Guardian:

The Labour leader will give all metro mayors and combined authorities powers over adult education, something already the case in 10 areas across England including London, Greater Manchester, and the West Midlands. The plan will involve mayors and the combined authorities playing a central role in turning some further education colleges into so-called technical excellence colleges, a new type of institution aimed at providing local areas with specific skills. Local firms could invest in the colleges, helping design courses to match their need.

It was therefore interesting to join a Policy@Manchester event. Greater Manchester have been putting some serious thought into this issue and are developing a place-based Manchester Baccalaureate, the MBacc, for 14 – 16-year-olds. The Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, proposed in May the idea of a Greater Manchester Baccalaureate (MBacc) for technical education, which would sit alongside the existing English Baccalaureate (EBacc) for those wanting to pursue a university education. At age 18, young people who completed the MBacc could progress to a higher-level apprenticeship, or degree apprenticeship.

What was impressive about the Manchester plans, was the recognition of place – and ongoing opportunities within that place. As Eric Lybeck pointed out at the Policy@Manchester Event, if you increase attainment in left-behind areas, it is likely those with higher qualifications will leave these areas, because the job opportunities are not available; the skills flight. Baz Ramaiah added to this, explaining that no other high-income country has their economy distributed in such a concentrated placed-based way – with the main concentration in London.

I heard repeatedly that employers, local authorities, and education institutions needed to work together to tackle the skills gap. This certainly seemed to be the case in Manchester, where employers were being expected to suggest solutions and support with delivery of this programme – the hope being that employers will recognise the opportunity to upskill the workforce in the region, and therefore invest in the area.

Labour did not signal any hard policy changes to traditional undergraduate degree provision – other then perhaps some tweaking of the loans repayment system. Policy change was focussed in the skills area, with Seema Malhotra stating that 50 per cent of the apprenticeship levy will be made available for the broader skills agenda.

If large-scale funding changes are not forthcoming for traditional higher education, expanding innovate delivery of flexible, modular, and lifelong education should be viewed as an opportunity. The LLE may be the vehicle for this, but changes in regulation will be needed to grease the wheels.

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  1. Gavin Moodie says:

    Are the policy, accreditation, quality assurance and financing arrangements that are appropriate for substantial further and higher education qualifications also appropriate for small work-placed skills modules?

  2. John Quicke says:

    I’m all in favour of these proposals. But what’s to stop those with degree apprenticeship also leaving the area? A degree provides wider opportunities , otherwise it isn’t a degree! A further incentive is required. Apprentice students could have their fees or a proportion of them paid for by employers or local/regional authorities on condition they took up employment in the local area at least for a certain period of time ( two or three years?).

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