What Labour should be saying about Higher Education

You probably shouldn’t read too much into the news that University applications are down almost 10%. True, it sounds shocking and creates an easy stick for which to beat the coalition with, but if past evidence is to go by, give it a year or two and those numbers will bounce right back up again. That doesn’t make the coalition policy right though, far from it.

Our view of Higher Education is seen through the narrow prism of individual benefit. Put simply, those who go to University earn significantly more on average than those that don’t. University should be seen as investment – like property, or gold. What’s more, if your investment doesn’t pay off (i.e. you don’t earn lots of money) you don’t have to pay your fees. Bonus.

But what if you look at Universities another way? Perhaps argue that they exist to benefit everyone in society, not just those who have the privilege to study at them? Some of the arguments are obvious, nurses and doctors for example all repay society a hundred times over every time they save a life. Some are more abstract, how do you begin to quantify the wider cultural and societal benefits of a more educated population?

We live in a global marketplace, where companies pick and choose their suppliers from anywhere. A call-centre in India, a factory in China, a creative agency from the US. A better educated country is a more flexible country and the more flexible it is the more productive it becomes. This doesn’t just benefit graduates, it lifts salaries and living standards for everyone.

Higher Education however is struggling, funding is much lower per head than in the US (and the rise in fees does nothing to improve this – they merely help replace the £1billion funding cut from central government), what’s more we are suffering the beginning of a brain-drain. An unintended consequence of tuition-fees is that students have started shopping globally for their education, with many of our brightest young people opting to study elsewhere. The same is true of our academics. Outside of Cambridge (which still proudly sits at the top of global rankings) our institutions are beginning to fare badly against the global competition – not just from within the US but increasingly from Asia, particularly China.

Labour’s record on higher education is mixed – whilst in office it’s 50% target helped dramatically improve access, particularly to those on lower incomes. On the debit front they were the ones who brought in tuition-fees in the first place. In opposition they have, as so often, plumped for a ‘coalition-lite’ policy – where students will pay less, but not by much. It is both intellectually and politically lazy.

Central to Ed Miliband’s political philosophy is ‘the promise of a generation’ – the deal whereby you provide the next generation with more opportunities than you had yourself. I would love to see a higher education policy that reflected this philosophy. One that accepts the wider society benefits of a good education, and with it the costs. Universities too should take more responsibility. Learning from their US cousins, they need to become much better at commercialising the significant intellectual property they own and invest in more sophisticated Alumni programmes. In fact the only people who should be worrying less about university financing are the students themselves – they, after all, should have other things on their mind.

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