Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Access Would Get a 'Reboot' under Labour, Says Byrne

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Access Would Get a 'Reboot' under Labour, Says Byrne

Article excerpt

Shadow minister tells John Morgan Labour will aim for graduate tax but has no plans to recap numbers

The Labour Party would "reboot" the access regime for universities under its £6,000 tuition fee policy and is not guaranteeing the future of the Office for Fair Access, according to Liam Byrne.

Labour's shadow universities, science and skills minister spoke to Times Higher Education after Ed Miliband, the party's leader, unveiled an election pledge to lower tuition fees to £6,000 along with a commitment for a £400 increase in student maintenance grants in a speech on 27 February.

Some in the sector fear that the party's commitment to £2.7 billion of annual spending to replace lost tuition fee income for universities could increase pressure for cuts on the rest of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills budget, including research spending.

But Mr Byrne emphasised the urgent need for change. "Right now, the financial system [universities] are built on is turning to dust. There's no getting around it."

He highlighted critical reports on the coalition government's £9,000 fees and loans system produced by the Commons Public Accounts Committee, the Business, Innovation and Skills select committee and the Higher Education Commission all suggesting that it is unsustainable in the long term.

"Although I know that many people in the sector and many university leaders would like to pretend that it can all go on for ever, the truth is it can't: it will change," Mr Byrne said. "University leaders have got to be, I'm afraid, hard-headed about who they will trust to give them the truth."

At present, universities must reach an access agreement with Offa, the sector's access watchdog, before being allowed to charge fees above £6,000. An institution's plans on how to support disadvantaged students and applicants are notionally funded from the portion of fees above £6,000.

What would happen to Offa - established by the last Labour government - and access agreements under Labour's £6,000 plan? "We would reboot access strategy basically," Mr Byrne said.

He argued that Aimhigher, the national widening participation programme that was scrapped by the coalition government, "should be brought back, probably on a regional basis" and "reconnected with the rebuild of the careers service".

Does that mean scrapping Offa or keeping it? "We're not ruling anything out; we're not ruling anything in," said Mr Byrne, adding that the party wants a "big conversation with the sector about the right way of delivering access in a world where fees are set at £6K, where we have ambitions to send apprentices to university in a much bigger way".

Labour's fees announcement has also prompted questions about whether the commitment to extra funding would entail bringing back caps on undergraduate numbers. "We've got no plans to reintroduce those old number controls. We have an ambition to prioritise growth around technical degrees," Mr Byrne said.

He also reiterated that Labour's long-term plan was to replace fees and loans with a graduate tax. "Ed Balls [the shadow chancellor], Ed Miliband, Chuka Umunna [the shadow business secretary], myself, we all see a graduate tax as the right long-term solution. But students have been given promises in the past that were broken by [Liberal Democrat leader] Nick Clegg. We have to be really careful; we will only make promises we can keep. …

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