Fri, 8 December 2023

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UK Higher Education is a global brand and must be safeguarded

3 min read

The Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Further Education & Skills writes following the publication of the Government's HE White Paper.

Much has been made of what is in this White Paper - but it’s also what’s not covered or what has been covered inadequately that matters.

The government says its proposed new Office for Students “will cover, among other areas, access and participation” but there is little detail as to what resources this new body will have. Sustained funding cuts have shredded and undermined the capacity of both colleges and universities to deliver widening participation.

At the same time, the White Paper remains thin on a specific strategy for expanding the number of adult and part-time students, often including disadvantaged learners, after a huge drop in numbers.

The small incremental improvements already announced, not due until 2018, are inadequate to do this or to deliver the social mobility, productivity and economic success to which for adult learning is central. The government is in danger of producing narrow 20th century solutions to 21st century challenges.

Just as this White Paper does not currently do the business for adult learners the Government has still not grasped the need to raise ambitions and confidence for disadvantaged young people, at a much earlier age, about going on to higher education. The Government then needs to promote and prioritise this via outreach work to and with their schools and colleges.

This is not a new idea, five, even ten year ago, when I  served on the Education and Skills Select Committees, Peter Lampl at the Sutton Trust, and others, were arguing for an expanded drive encouraging young people to work towards University at earlier ages. This now needs to be a central plank in widening participation and Government can’t and shouldn’t just expect Universities to do it all at 15-16+. A definitive strategy from Government and resources must go along with that.

If the Government is serious about widening participation, they need to understand the importance for the powerful new combined local authorities, not just in London but across the English regions to help to deliver that agenda. The White Paper completely fails to address how "DevoMax" will bring this much larger role for combined authorities over skills and HE strategy in places such as London and Greater Manchester with their clusters of universities.

This is a huge omission and it leaves BIS stuck in a goldfish bowl of Whitehall micromanagement at a time when we desperately need to re-engineer the delivery of our productivity and job needs across England.

Finally, the Government’s White Paper overlooks a vital factor. There is little sense of its knock-on effects for "UK PLC". HE providers across England and the devolved nations of Britain are internationally competitive because of a trusted UK brand. There needs to be a UK-wide strategy in place to safeguard it.

Jo Johnson and his colleagues need to stop their ideological obsession with markets and competition and instead work with the grain of an entrepreneurial state, local government and business to embed social mobility and economic success for the next generation of young people who will enter HE.

Gordon Marsden is the Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Further Education and Skills & the Labour MP for Blackpool South

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