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Labour’s Shadow Universities Minister speaks: UPDATE “7 Key Tests for Higher Education”

UPDATE 23rd July 2020

Following hot on the heels of her presentation yesterday, Emma Hardy, the shadow Universities Minister with the Labour Party has released their ‘7 Key Tests for Higher Education’ earlier today.

Her letter to the Secretary of State for education further stresses the need for a better coordinated approach. It fills the main gaps in the government's thinking and addresses financial hardship with:

“No student should get into further debt because of Covid19. It should guarantee university hardship funds are sufficiently resourced and accessible to all who need them”. 

Missing is the hot issue of reduced or refunded fees for online learning and indeed the removal of fees entirely, that is official Labour policy. Also, the conundrum of post qualification admissions is unlikely to be the priority in an existential crisis for universities and students alike. After all, the whole system could meltdown under further campus lock-downs to safeguard staff and students. This will happen despite government policy or intent. The Labour focus may be because the ‘Key Tests’ are only set in the context of the current government policy, COVID-19 and the ‘Regime’,  and not in anticipation of any future Labour Policy. Jim Dickinson of WONKHE has provided a timely and clear take on these omissions today with ‘What does Labour’s silence on tuition fees tell us?’. 

The seven deadly university policy sins.

The fact that there are seven of them is almost biblical in its presentation and this may be no coincidence. The key tests might easily be interpreted as the seven ‘Cardinal Virtues’ of university policy:
  1. No university should be allowed to go bust and there must be equality of opportunity for all in every region. 
  2. Reduce barriers to learning
  3. Protect and enhance domestic and international research
  4. Enhance a cooperative and coordinated Higher Education sector across the whole of the UK
  5. Prevent further financial hardship for current students
  6. Provide comprehensive support for 2020 final year students
  7. Promote universities as civic institutions
They well may have been formulated to counterbalance the seven ‘Cardinal (deadly) Sins’ of the government’s actual policy on universities. It might be stretching the analogy a bit far, but these could be: 
  • Wrath: Universities should be allowed to go bust with no equal opportunities
  • Envy: Increase barriers to learning for the more talented disadvantaged students
  • Lust: Protect research for the attractive elite institutions only
  • Pride: Enhance competition and overzealous marketing to prevent a coordinated Higher Education sector across the whole of the UK
  • Gluttony: Support better off students with little need and increase financial hardship for current students in need
  • Greed: Avoid paying for comprehensive support for 2020 final year students
  • Sloth: Don’t bother to promote universities as civic institutions
Avarice, Pieter Bruegel
The government might need to repent and could turn to the lessons of the ‘Parson’s Tale’, starting by revealing their true intentions.

“Now comth the synne of double tonge;
Swiche as speken faire byforn folk, and wikkedly
bihynde; or elles they maken semblant
As though they speeke of good entencioun, or
Elles in game and pley, and yet they speke of
Wikked entente.”

The original post is below

Earlier today a very different approach to our universities was presented by Emma Hardy, the Labour Shadow Minister for Universities. Interviewed by Rachel Hewitt, HEPI Director of Policy and Advocacy, she pressed for a different kind of ‘Social Mobility’. This was in contrast to the views of Michelle Donalen, the Conservative Universities Minister, put forward online yesterday (see TEFS 21st July 2020 ‘Universities Minister retreats a bit on social mobility’). The full webinar video is available on the HEPI www site ‘Rachel HEPI webinar with Emma Hardy MP, Shadow Minister for Universities’

The main short presentation and an answer to a question about her own experiences as a student are here. 

Real Social Mobility is about having choices. 

In her presentation, that is well worth listening to, Hardy simply argued that real social mobility is built upon equal choices. Many students will not have the choices that many others have and this must be addressed. She finished with a passing nod to Thomas Stearns Eliot and the ‘Hollow Men’ with “Labour’s vision is of equality of opportunity and for that to happen, barriers to learning and progression must be identified and addressed and until the government tackle this any talk of real social mobility is hollow words”. 

Bridging the credibility gap. 

The result was that a much needed and authoritative dose of reality was injected into the situation in which universities and students find themselves. This was very welcome alone. Then her credibility and grounding soared when she was asked about her own experiences as a student. Her observations about being a student at Liverpool and Leeds universities were firmly grounded in reality. Like her counterpart in the government, she comes from a rural area, the East Riding of Yorkshire, that is a POLAR4 Quintile 5 participation area (see *NOTE below). Likewise, she studied Politics during the low fee Labour Regime, this time at the University of Liverpool. She then progressed to the University of Leeds and a Postgraduate Certificate of Education before teaching in Hull for ten years. She describes the time in Leeds as a full 9 to 5 day studying for her teaching qualification. It was in complete contrast to Liverpool where she was tasked to attend for only nine hours per week as contact time. This enabled her to hold down two jobs, one in a local nursery and the other in a local pub. The experience mirrors that of many students seeking finance to help continue. It also means the Hardy fully appreciates the pressures that students are currently experiencing. However, the conclusion must be that there are many more well off students with a great deal of time on their hands. Their experience is very different and this lies at the core of an grossly unequal system.

In addition, and unlike her government counterpart, Michelle Donelan, Hardy's constituency of Hull West and Hessle captures much of inner city Hull and POLAR4 participation Quintiles 1,2 and 3. She can easily appreciate that many of her young constituents would have a similar experience if they ventured into a university. Her time as a teacher also offers a better appreciation of what the challenges are at all levels.

Hardy full acknowledged that she is challenging a government with a large majority. But she alluded harshly to the earlier views of Donelan when she said that she would would "Encourage the sector not to leave itself vulnerable to lazy attacks".

It seems our only hope is that the government is not entirely inhabited by lost souls and hollow ‘men’ and that the world of higher education will not end whimpering at their hands.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.

*NOTE. POLAR refers to Participation of Local Areas and there are now four versions. From the 2018/19 publication onwards, the low participation data uses the updated POLAR4 classification. The POLAR4 data is calculated in a different way to previous POLAR mappings and therefore the two datasets are not strictly comparable. For time series purposes, the indicators for 2015/16 to 2017/18 have been produced using both POLAR3 and POLAR4 data. The POLAR3 classification is formed by ranking 2001 Census Area Statistics (CAS) wards by their young participation rates for the combined 2005 to 2009 cohorts. This gives five quintile groups of areas ordered from ‘1’ (those wards with the lowest participation) to ‘5’ (those wards with the highest participation), each representing 20 per cent of UK young cohort. Students have been allocated to the neighbourhoods on the basis of their postcode. Those students whose postcode falls within wards with the lowest participation (quintile 1) are denoted as being from a low participation neighbourhood. See HESA Definitions and benchmark factors: definitions.


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