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Labour must address who our universities are for

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The author is a professor at the University of Bristol and co-author of “Who are universities for?”

According to Chancellor Rachel Reeves, “huge swathes of Britain are being erased from our national history”. Nowhere is this more evident than in higher education. New Labour led to a dramatic increase in the number of graduates in Britain, but this increase was largely because the number of graduates was still the same. In Bristol, where I live, almost all 18-year-olds go to university in affluent Clifton, but only one in 12 in Hartcliffe, a post-war housing estate in another part of the city.

Higher education is in crisis: tuition fees for UK students have been frozen since 2017, and the international study market, on which fees depend for cross-subsidisation, is volatile and highly competitive. This is one of the UK’s most successful wealth and export industries – and it urgently needs help.

The Labour Party’s manifesto signals a subtle shift in policy and rhetoric, promising to “support the ambitions of every person who qualifies and wants to go to university”. This is a far cry from the previous Conservative government, which aimed for “Mickey Mouse degrees” and wanted fewer students.

But with the UK’s health system in dire straits and schools collapsing and understaffed, will higher education be a priority in the new government’s spending plans? That is unlikely – particularly if the case for intervention is based on the claim that what our universities need is not a transformation, just more money.

Higher education is vital to achieving Labour’s priorities for economic growth. Universities will help the country embrace new technologies (including green energy) and improve the life chances of individuals and communities. They can be influential regional players, working with industry to drive growth and create jobs. They are key to solving global problems, including climate change.

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

If the Labour government is to sort out university funding, it must insist on reform. This could start with a target of getting 75 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds into higher education, up from Tony Blair’s famous target of 50 per cent. But they should not all get degrees: the emphasis should be on shorter qualifications and apprenticeships. Universities and long-neglected secondary schools must work together to develop and deliver courses so that an electrician can learn about the global challenges affecting the trade and an architect can learn practical skills on building sites.

Universities should be required to recruit at least 15 per cent from low-participation areas of their city region and to provide these students with career opportunities in the region’s growth industries. This would be challenging for a university such as Durham, which recruits less than 10 per cent from these groups, but not for Wolverhampton, where it is already 80 per cent. A ‘social mobility premium’ paid to universities that exceed this target would provide incentives.

We should reward institutions that successfully focus on a specific mission – and for innovation. The sector has become too homogenous, and smaller universities are struggling to compete with more prestigious universities for the same students in similar programs. Some are even facing bankruptcy.

Universities should be meeting places for a wide range of expertise and experiences. If we want a common national history, rethinking their role is a good start.