Labour must address who our universities are for

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The writer is a professor at Bristol university and co-author of ‘Who are universities for?’

According to the chancellor, Rachel Reeves, “vast swaths of Britain are written out of our national story”. Nowhere is this more apparent than in higher education. New Labour oversaw a dramatic increase in the number of graduates in the UK, but it was driven overwhelmingly by more-of-the-same groups attending. In Bristol, where I live, nearly all the 18-year-olds in wealthy Clifton go to university, but only 1 in 12 of those in Hartcliffe, a postwar housing estate in another part of the city, attend.

Higher education is in crisis: tuition fees for UK students have been frozen since 2017 and the international student market, on whose fees it depends for cross-subsidy, is volatile and highly competitive. This is one of the UK’s most successful assets and export industries — and it is in need of urgent help.

Labour’s manifesto signals a quiet shift in policy and rhetoric. It promises to “support the aspiration of every person who meets the requirements and wants to go to university”. This is a far cry from the former Conservative government that targeted “Mickey Mouse degrees” and wanted fewer undergraduates.

But will higher education be a priority for the new government’s spending plans, given the dire state of the NHS and collapsing, understaffed schools? It’s unlikely — particularly if the case for intervention rests on claiming that our universities do not need a rethink, they just need more money.

Higher education is crucial to achieving Labour’s priorities of economic growth. Universities will help the country harness new technologies (including in green energy) as well as change the life chances of individuals and communities. They can be powerful regional actors, working with industry to stimulate growth and create jobs. They are key to responding to global problems, including climate change.

But they can also be eye-wateringly slow to respond to changes that affect them. The current funding model assumes that the student is an 18-year-old with one career ahead of them, studying full-time away from home. It was invented hundreds of years ago for a small number of privileged men. Many careers — even many ways of life — will become obsolete before today’s graduates retire. Studying locally is more affordable and less daunting for many who could now benefit from university education.

If the Labour government fixes university funding, it must insist on reform. This could start with a target of 75 per cent of 18-30-year-olds in higher education, building from Tony Blair’s famous target of 50 per cent. But they shouldn’t all be doing a degree: there should be a new emphasis on shorter qualifications and apprenticeships. Universities and long-neglected further education colleges will need to design and provide courses together, so that an electrician learns about global challenges affecting the trade and an architect learns practical skills on construction sites.

Universities should be required to recruit a minimum of 15 per cent from low-participation neighbourhoods in their city-region, connecting these students to careers in the region’s growth industries. This would be a stretch for a university like Durham, say, which recruits fewer than 10 per cent from these groups, but not for Wolverhampton, which already manages 80 per cent. A “social mobility premium” paid to universities that exceed the target would create incentives.

We should reward institutions that successfully focus on a specific mission — and for innovation. The sector has become too homogenous, with smaller universities struggling to compete against more prestigious ones for the same students on similar courses. A few are even at risk of bankruptcy.

Universities should be meeting points for very diverse kinds of expertise and experience. If we want a shared national story, rethinking their role is a good place to start.

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