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“What might a major review from Labour consider?” Read Alistair Jarvis’ comment for Wonkhe


Written by
Mark Piggott

Pro Vice Chancellor (Partnerships and Governance) Alistair Jarvis has had another piece published at Wonkhe, this time about what might happen if Labour wins the general election and undertake a major review of Higher Education. The article is republished in full below.

Alistair Jarvis, Pro Vice-Chancellor Partnerships and Governance, Ƶ
A major review of Higher Education is urgent, says Alistair Jarvis

What might a major review from Labour consider?

Is a major review of higher education funding on the way? What might the scope and parameters need to be? Alistair Jarvis asks the questions

The Labour manifesto made it clear that we can expect significant policy, funding, and regulatory change for universities and the broader post-16 education sector.

The manifesto outlined a sense of direction and priorities, but there was little detail on specific new higher education policy commitments.

There is an opportunity, in an Autumn 2024 budget, for a new Labour government to take some initial steps to stabilise the funding of universities and colleges and tackle student hardship. However, major funding and regulatory reform will take longer to think through properly and develop fuller detailed policy proposals.

What kind of review?

There is increasing speculation that we should expect a major policy and funding review – perhaps the expected Spending Review (in 2025?) could act as a springboard.

So, starting from the hypothesis that a major review is likely, there are a myriad of questions. To start with – how broad will it be? The manifesto promises a new post-16 education strategy, so this might suggest that any review also needs to be across (at least) further education, higher education, apprenticeships, and adult skills.

From this point onwards, I’m going to focus primarily on universities, but it may well be wise to substitute every mention of universities with “post-18 education providers”.

Then there are key early framing decisions to make. Should the review look at fundamental issues such as the purpose of universities, and what society needs and wants from universities?

There is also a question about how radical the government wants to be. Is it prepared to build an entirely new funding system? Is it prepared to develop a new regulatory framework (and new regulators to go with it)? Is it willing to consider the role of the market in higher education? The line in the Labour manifesto which reads, 

“We recognise that UK higher education creates opportunity, is a world-leading sector in our economy, and supports local communities…” 

is a very good starting place.

The appetite for radical options may be influenced by the incoming government’s assessment of the scale of the problem, the first assessment of the fiscal situation; choices around the prioritisation of policy areas; and the size of the government’s majority.

Could the Australian Universities Accord provide a possible model? It’s been complemented by some commentators for its breath, depth and ambition.

My prescription

Whatever the scope – tertiary or universities, radical or more pragmatic – I suggest that the following eleven areas could usefully be explored as part of any major review.

What does the country need from its tertiary education system? There needs to be a look at the size and shape of the post-18 sector. The role and responsibilities of the diversity of providers and the balance between HE, FE and apprenticeships. There needs to be a focus on what is best for students and whether policy should be directed to support collaboration or create competition.

What funding system can best offer medium-term sustainability for education providers and fairness for students? These need to be balanced to ensure fairness for students, graduates, and taxpayers – and sufficient funding for providers to deliver a high-quality education. More generous maintenance funding for students is surely a positive early step that could be taken. Questions of value for money for money are also legitimate and important. Getting the core funding system right is no mean feat and a political hot potato! This line in the Labour manifesto makes clear that change is on the way:

“The current higher education funding settlement does not work for the taxpayer, universities, staff, or students. Labour will act to create a secure future for higher education.”

How can we reduce regional disparities in higher education cold spots? It is unacceptable in a modern society to have some local areas where progression rates to higher education are at 15 or 20 per cent. A serious examination of policy interventions to support access should be a social and economic priority. Following the very welcome recent  by UCAS that students in receipt of free school meals (FSM) will no longer have to pay for their university application, they will also be an important partner in further enhancing information, advice, and guidance in schools to support progression.

Is there a role for greater regionalisation of tertiary education and research policy and funding? The metro and regional mayors might have a bigger role to play. As Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham has also shown an interest in regional HE strategy.  are leading the field in developing interesting thinking on regional higher education policy.

Should the review also consider research policy and funding? At the very least, there needs to be an appreciation that education and research functions do not operate in isolation from each other. Staffing, funding, reputation, quality and much more are inherently interlinked. As soon as the focus widens to research there are important issues to consider concerning postgraduate research degrees; the balance between blue skies and mission-driven research funding; supporting the arts and humanities; collaboration with business R&D; international research collaboration risk and opportunities; the pipeline of research talent; research funding concentration and regional distribution. I have barely scratched the surface with this list.

What can be done to better support lifelong learning? There is a cross-party consensus that the current funding system does not adequately support adult learners or part-time learners. The LLE is in its infancy and there are big decisions for Labour about whether to support the current direction of travel, supercharge the LLE, or replace it.

How can universities support the government to tackle teacher shortages? The Labour manifesto promised that an incoming government will recruit 6,500 new teachers. How can new policy and funding interventions help realise this ambition?

How can the admissions system best support access to higher education? There remain influential voices that favour a move to a system of post qualification admissions. The detailed work (in 2019-21) on fair admissions by , , and others is worth a careful read by an incoming government.

How can staff remuneration be improved? Staff are a university’s greatest asset. It is vital that pay, pensions and conditions are attractive to recruit and retain talented people. There needs to be consideration as to whether national policy interventions could be helpful. For example, the increasing costs of the teachers pensions scheme needs to be addressed.

How can we ensure that the UK is an attractive destination for international students? This question likely cuts across immigration policy, trade policy, research policy, education policy, housing, funding and much more. There is certainly another lengthy article that could be written on this. For now, I’ll simply say that consideration needs to be given to supercharging the international education strategy (including the important role of transnational education) whilst not being naïve that there are questions and concerns about increasing the number of international students exponentially.

What does good regulation look like? There is an important balance to be struck between ensuring quality, protecting students, effective scrutiny of institutions and a manageable level of bureaucratic burden. This is not easy. Very few in universities (and not many in parliament) believe that the current regulatory approach is striking the right balance.

Of course, there are so many other issues that I haven’t touched upon. Many of which would merit their own reviews! Which parts of the HE policy landscape should be considered UK-wide – given much is devolved to governments in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland? Do Labour have a view on the role of for-profit providers in higher education? What role for universities and colleges in Labour’s industrial strategy? However, I’m going to end here before this article becomes a book.

I hope that I’ve at least convinced you that a major review is needed, indeed it is increasingly urgent.

(18 June 2024)