Theresa May’s Review of Post-18 Education and Funding has taken as long to come to the stage as some ageing rock star’s farewell tour. The lengthy leaks that preceded her speech confused rather than clarified, and the Review’s ‘terms of reference’ did the same.
The irony of the Prime Minister speaking at a Further Education college while omitting any strategy for 16-18 year olds apparently eluded her. Although she spoke about shiny new Institutes of Technology, what the FE sector desperately needs now, after almost eight years of Tory-led rule, is genuine parity of esteem – long discussed but not delivered – for its students and staff.
The Prime Minister talked about lifelong learning, but with no recognition of the havoc the Tories have created since they came to power in 2010: tripling HE tuition fees, scrapping maintenance grants and introducing Adult Learning Loans, half of which have been handed back unused to the Treasury. The Open University, part-time courses and lifelong learning across a swathe of universities have fallen victim to years of relentless Tory cuts.
Her reluctance to back maintenance grants, as well as the way she ducked and dived around questions from the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, painfully revealed the hollowness of the Prime Minister’s speech. Even as she reluctantly acknowledged the issue, she implied it was a problem for universities and colleges to address rather than government.
Theresa May has openly admitted students face “one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world” and by doing so highlights what nearly eight years of a Tory-led Government has left us with
By contrast, Labour has had a firm commitment on reintroducing grants for nearly two years now; a fully funded and costed policy, along with reintroduction of the Education Maintenance Allowance, both of which gave a helping hand to young people before the Tories scrapped them.
Labour’s emphasis on maintenance grants is now being echoed by a rainbow coalition across the education sector: Universities UK and Million Plus, the (Conservative) Chair of the Education Select Committee and the recently published report of Treasury Select Committee, also chaired by a Conservative MP. Even the Vice-Chancellor of the private University of Buckingham, Sir Antony Seldon, has chipped in his support.
Many across the Higher Education sector are warning that access and participation funding for disadvantaged young people could be cut to pay for whatever new proposals the government pushes. A token reduction in fees, without matching the new funding Labour offers would take billions out of the sector while students would still face massive debts. That option, trailed by the government over the weekend, will satisfy no one.
If Theresa May really wanted to break down the ‘false boundaries’ between HE and FE she talked about, 16-18 year olds would be in this Review. It is Labour that promised in our manifesto to set up a Commission to align HE and FE, making the UK fit for purpose for the challenges we face into the 2030s. It is Labour that has talked about allowing credit accumulation across HE and FE to reflect the revolving mix of skills and learning that both young and older learners will need to have. It is Labour with our new National Education Service that has the narrative and vision to achieve this, alongside our promises on HE and FE fee abolition.
Theresa May has openly admitted students face “one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world” and by doing so highlights what nearly eight years of a Tory-led Government has left us with: an unprecedented HE student debt levels among the UK’s competitors and a mess in lifelong learning. Theresa May has forfeited the right to address those challenges.
Gordon Marsden is a shadow education minister and Labour MP for Blackpool South