'F' is for failure

WilfStevenson.jpgWilf Stevenson on the scandalous omission of a universities bill in the Queen’s Speech

Today’s, third day of debate on the Queen’s Speech deals with business, employment, pensions, welfare, agriculture and the environment. Wide ranging, with 48 speakers, I am looking forward to winding up the debate for our frontbench.

My main focus will be the bills in the government’s legislative programme that fall into the categories expected to be the principal topics for debate. But I will also raise what seems to be a serious omission – the lack of a bill to clear up the mess the Coalition are making of our universities.

The higher education sector that emerged in Britain in the 1960s, with a national admissions process and a national grant regime, ensured that until 2010 we had not only world class universities but a world class university system. It was diverse, competitive in a way that encouraged innovation in research and teaching, and it delivered high standards. It was also highly efficient. I happen to think we should be very proud of it. But there is now a growing consensus that the changes introduced by the Coalition are a disaster. 

As Shadow BIS Secretary Chuka Umunna said recently, in a country where living standards are under such acute pressure and where the deficit still looms so large, innovation is the only way out of austerity. Labour’s goal is a high-productivity, high-skilled, innovation-led economy. As power-houses of the knowledge economy, our universities need to be bigger, stronger, and more central to our economy in the years to come. Britain needs to put science and innovation at the heart of a strategy for long-term economic growth. Unless we grow smarter, we will grow poorer.

The Coalition's proposal to pour more money into 'more of the same' has now been exposed as impossible. What has been created over the past four years isn't sustainable. It does nothing to boost the science base, diversify student choice, bring universities and business together, or deliver fast enough progress towards social mobility. 

Half the new money proposed in the next parliament bleeds straight out to provide for debt write-off – and much of what's left will go straight to the hundreds of private providers whose students now consume north of £850 million a year in public subsidy. Meanwhile, the government exercises no control on those providers profitability. 

Our higher education system is now not fit for purpose, and it’s a scandal that there is nothing on our universities in the new legislative programme. The Coalition has failed. It is time for a new way forward.

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is Shadow Higher Education Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @Missenden50

Published 10th June 2014

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