- Emma Hardy, Labour shadow minister for Higher Education, MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle.
Speaking live from her Parliamentary office, Emma had to leave sharply as the division bell (calling Members to vote) took place during her speech. The text of her speech is below, as is a transcription of her responses later to questions asked by Deepa Driver, Reading (chair).
COVID-19 has sent shockwaves through the higher education sector. In the immediate aftermath of the lockdown Universities were faced with the challenge of moving their courses online, helping students to access those courses, confusion over accommodation, hardship funds, exams, awarding degrees — a seemingly endless barrage of problems all requiring prompt and robust solutions.
During the first months of the crisis the DfE chose to sit on its hands. When called to act in support of universities it deferred to their independent status, generic business support or to the role of the Office for Students and left the sector to its own devices. Fortunately, higher education is populated with dedicated, adaptable and resourceful people and I would like to commend you all for coping with the pandemic as well as you did.
Then the financial implications for the future started to roll in.
The Institute for Financial studies IFS gave its central estimate of total long-run sector losses at £11 billion — more than a quarter of the usual income in one year.
Universities are unlikely to be able to claw back a large portion of these losses through cost savings unless they make significant numbers of staff redundant. In the IFS central scenario, they estimate that cost savings could reduce the overall bill by only £600 million or around 6% without redundancies.
The London Economics paper on the “Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on University Finances” predicted a total of 60,000 jobs could be lost in the sector.
The IFS study predicted thirteen universities, educating around 5% of students, would end up with negative reserves and so may not be viable in the long run without a government bailout or debt restructuring.
In some regions our universities are one of the few graduate employers and any job losses will have a negative impact on the local economy in which a university resides. Of the 60,000 job losses predicted by the London Economics paper, 30,000 were in the local community and the total amount of lost spending in local economies was a staggering £6.1bn.
The government must understand that you can’t level up by shutting down.
The Government’s response to the looming university financial crisis has been to launch an attack on the sector: accusing it of offering “low value degrees”; astonishingly implying that if you don’t come from a family where your parents have gone to university you could be tricked into attending university.
There is a real opportunity for true social mobility and revolutionary change in the makeup of universities if the universities all deliver on their 5 year widening opportunities and access plans, the government should be doubling down on this commitment rather than throwing widening participation targets under the bus by the University Minister telling the Education Select Committee “it doesn’t matter about looking at which groups don’t get to university.”
Having rejected proposals for both a sector-wide guarantee and then targeted bailouts, the government has now announced its Higher Education Restructuring Regime, which, in its opening remarks by Gavin Williamson, declares “it is not a guarantee that no organisation will fail”.
Labour cannot countenance the loss of a single university because we cannot countenance the equal loss of opportunity. At a time when the country is facing the possibility of the deepest recession in its history — when unemployment is set to soar and when retraining and reskilling will be more needed than ever – the Government’s position is beyond rational comprehension.
The Higher Education Restructuring Regime also threatens the total breadth of provision the institution provides in its area.
Wholesale course cuts would create regional “cold spots” leaving a geographical area without adequate provision. Local provision is vital for so-called “commuter students” who are predominantly from the most disadvantaged groups – part-timers, low-income families, mature and BAME students.
Instead of the government supporting Life Long Learning we could instead see a reduction of opportunity and aspiration at the local level for those who need it most at the worst possible time.
Any University forced into accessing a loan through Higher Education Restructuring Regime must consider, amongst other things: ending “duplication of courses”; whether level 4 or 5 courses may be more appropriate; and whether local FE institutions might be better placed to offer them. These considerations must be placed in context and recognise the economic reality facing FE.
It cannot be overstated that FE has been defunded to the tune of £1.4 billion a year in real terms compared to 2010 levels. This government have offered only a £300 million sticking-plaster. There is very limited capacity to relocate students to local FE. In fact, if what we’re hearing is right, in the face of current crisis half of FE colleges are planning on making redundancies.
Gavin Williamson’s talk of “rebalancing” funding between FE and HE makes it sound as if resources have been pulled from FE into, HE. This is not the case. It was a Conservative Party decision to remove student number caps, create a market led university system, only offer loans and funding for degrees and cut funding to FE and adult Education. The funding, via loans, followed the market the government created.
The Labour Party’s position is that everyone, everywhere has the right to the education and training they need.
What people need is high-quality careers advice and guidance combined with genuine choice. This means the course they want must affordable and locally available: whatever it is and whoever is providing it. For this to happen both further education and adult education must be properly funded. We need a post 18 landscape that includes even more degree apprenticeships, part-time degrees, modular courses and that is accompanied by levels of maintenance funding that makes them a realistic proposition.
To enable real choice for everyone the government should be focused on identifying the barriers to learning and breaking them down not establishing more.
We cannot ever see a situation again where Education is viewed as a privilege for the few and not a right for all. We all have a right to learn and having an educated population not only helps us individually but as a country too, no country’s economy has grown on the back of reducing access to higher education.
It matters which groups in society get access to university.
It is true that the biggest barrier preventing those born into disadvantage improving their situation is being born disadvantaged itself. Our universities are being asked to solve the problems of social mobility at the same time as child poverty is growing and the attainment gap widening, if the government are serious about social mobility then I suggest that they must tackle this problem head on.
Our Higher Education system is not perfect and there is always more the sector can do, for example, to tackle the BAME attainment gap, support for disadvantaged students during university, the suitability of some courses and how welcoming institutions are to mature and part time students… amongst others, but I recognise the progress already made on Vice Chancellors pay and awarding grades and I would encourage the sector not to leave itself vulnerable to lazy attacks.
The development of blended learning has been an abject lesson in the sector’s responsiveness and willingness to evolve and this could be applied to improving the offer to those with SEND for example, to widen opportunities even further.
Labour believe universities have a vital community and development role to play in helping the country to build back better. Many are already actively engaged in the task.
I have read with great interest The Civic University Commission Report and its proposals that all universities develop a clear strategy, in cooperation with local partners, that is rooted in a robust and shared analysis of local needs and opportunities and I am very supportive of these suggestions.
The Government should be doing everything in its power to support and assist our universities. The vision Labour are keen to foster is that of universities as the powerhouses of local regeneration and of social mobility.
The final part of the contribution I wanted to make is really around this commitment to universities and recognising their importance both in what they do for people as an individual and what they do for society more widely.
I think sometimes we have lost — well, not us, but the country has lost — that sense of the importance of universities as public bodies and the contribution that they bring, not just in terms of an economic sense but a cultural sense, and I am concerned, as I mentioned earlier, about the lazy attacks that have been levelled at universities during these incredibly difficult times. And one of the fears I have at the moment is that we are going to see the same pace of change in the Higher Education sector that we saw in the school sector between 2010 and 2015.
So I am sorry that I missed everyone else’s contributions. I wanted to use my final comments to make reference to the points that other people have made, so in my last two minutes if there is anything super-quick that anyone would like me to mention if I missed it before I have to disappear?
Deepa Driver: Can you give us advice about Parliamentary lobbying? Are there things we can do?
Yes, absolutely. In terms of the Labour Party response and my response in that area, and we are launching sort of a bit of a…. well, I can’t say too much about it as it will be launched on Friday… a bit of a response, and talking more widely about where Labour see the importance of Higher Education. In terms of offering you more of a platform in Parliament, I’m more than happy to; it was a shame we haven’t been able to do it physically, and hopefully in the future we could hold a physical event in Parliament.
But some of the other things you can do are: there are various cross-party groups set up in Parliament — there’s the All Party Parliamentary Group for Universities, the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Students, and the the All Party Parliamentary Group for Students as well. So there are a number of different vehicles in which you could make your voice heard.
Seeing as a constituency MP, the reason I am most likely to attend an event is because people living in my constituency have asked me to, I would obviously urge people to contact their Member of Parliament and ask them to attend a local event. And there are various consultations going on in all of these All Party Parliamentary Groups that I would urge you all to get involved in.
As I say, I think the pace of change is going to pick up and the narrative coming out from the Government is concerning. I think the sector needs to try and be as united and as strong as possible in countering some of this and standing up for what you all do and the difference you all make not just for individuals but the community and society as a whole. As I said earlier on, no country improves its economy and social cohesion by restricting access to university, and I hope that I have reassured you that I will try and be a champion for the sector as much as possible, because I know the opportunity that it brings and how life-changing it can be.