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Guardian HE Network, Thu 13 Oct: First or Fail – Chuka Umunna & University of Wales October 16, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in First or Fail, Higher Education, Tuition Fees.
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Chuka Umunna and the University of Wales: first or fail?

A fresh face on the Labour front bench makes a good impression – but it’s more bad news in Wales, says Aaron Porter


Chuka Umunna

Chuka Umunna, who has replaced John Denham as the shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, has enjoyed a meteoric rise, says Aaron Porter. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian

Heading for a First… Chuka Umunna

Almost as soon as conference season was over, Ed Miliband wasted no time in shuffling his pack, bringing some fresh faces to the Labour front bench. Perhaps the most meteoric rise was granted to the impressive Chuka Umunna, part of the 2010 intake and MP for Streatham, who replaced John Denham as the shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills. Given that jobs and economic growth are going to be vital between now and the next general election, this is a sizeable job to give to a relative novice. But Umunna has received notable plaudits both inside and out of the Labour party since his selection as the candidate to fight for Streatham in March 2008, and should provide added energy and vigour as Labour look to step up the competition with the coalition government.

While most of the political interest in his department will inevitably concentrate on economic growth and job creation, the role of higher education, also in his department, should not be overlooked. The OECD evidence is compelling; where there is state investment in a strong higher education system this more than pays itself back through growth, innovation and job creation. Given the absence of any obvious growth strategy from the coalition, Umunna would do well to look to the universities section of his shadow department when preparing to take the case to Cable, Osborne et al.

In the more medium term, he will also need to consider the broader position Labour will take on higher education funding before the next general election. The stopgap announcement just before party conference, for a fee level of £6,000, was met with a mixed reaction. Some party members, and the National Union of Students, are still holding out for a graduate tax – but the results of the Liam Byrne’s policyreview will be instrumental in determining whether the party will stick with the policy Ed Miliband pushed so hard on in his leadership campaign or not.

The job of helping to rebuild Labour’s reputation on the economy, and further exposing the government’s increasingly desperate recovery plan, is a considerable challengeand responsibility. My gut reaction is that Umunna has the essential ingredients to make a real success of it.

Heading for a Fail… University of Wales

No, it’s not just a repeat of last week, but sadly in the past seven days things appear to have become even more desperate for the University of the Wales. After the public concerns about their external degrees outside of Wales were aired just over a week ago, the past few days have seen yet more bad news.

Now, a European-funded scholarship programme, the Prince of Wales Innovation Scheme (Powis) has been withdrawn. According to the Welsh Assembly Enterprise Minister, Edwina Hart AM, a review into the programme found that it was not in fact eligible for EU funding. Although the overall budget for the programme was due to be £11m, with £5m coming from the European funding and the rest from universities and business, up to this point only £0.4m of the EU funding had been put in.

In separate news, it was also reported that the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC) was to change its name to distance itself from the University of Wales. The new name will be Cardiff Metropolitan University, and it will utilise its own awarding powers, rather than awarding degrees from the University of Wales.

So another tough seven days for the University of Wales. I sincerely hope I can write about something else next week.

Thu 29 Sep: Guardian HE Network – First or Fail: Labour’s tuition fee policy September 29, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in First or Fail, Higher Education, Tuition Fees.
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Labour’s tuition fees policy: first or fail?

Does the party’s announcement that it will remove price variability and back a £6,000 fixed fee deserve a first or a fail?


Labour leader Ed Miliband

Labour leader Ed Miliband delivering his spech to the party’s annaul conference at the Echo Arena in Liverpool. Photograph: CHRISTOPHER THOMOND/for the Guardian.

This week Labour’s announcement to back tuition fees at £6,000 has dominated the higher education agenda. But it’s drawn both praise and criticism, and so I’ve taken the decision to award it both a first and a fail, and look at its strength and weaknesses.

Heading for a first … Labour’s tuition fee policy

The removal of price variability, greater stability for university finances, the scrapping of the potentially destabilising core and margin model, and a significant reduction in student debt on graduation. Major steps forward that most accept would mute the market excesses of the coalition’s higher education reforms.

In announcing an interim position, which Labour has put forward as an alternative which could and in their eyes should be implemented immediately by the coalition, it proves that higher education continues to retain a high profile on the political agenda. It also appears to have resonated well with lots of prospective students and their parents who recognise that Labour has tried to reconcile the tension between ensuring universities remain to be sufficiently well funded, while continuing to bring in a student contribution.

Many universities too have welcomed the announcement, particularly those concerned about how the ill-thought out core and margin model will work. This appears to threaten to solidify social inequality by further concentrating students from selective schools into universities who will be spending more money on their students, while the rest will be forced into a bargain basement race to the bottom as universities are forced to charge fees lower than £7,500, implemented as a result of Treasury miscalculations on what the average fee would be.

Heading for a fail … Labour’s tuition fee policy

But for all the praise that Labour’s announcement brought, there was a fair amount of dismay and dissatisfaction too. Chief among the concerns came from supporters of a graduate tax, feeling that the £6,000 announcement was an attempt to backtrack from Ed Miliband’s support for the alternative to tuition fees which had been central to his leadership campaign.

While most accept that the transfer to a graduate tax isn’t feasible overnight, crucial technical issues like ensuring that hypothecation will work and clarity on the funding method for universities to still receive upfront money would need to be resolved, it was the lack of clarity over whether the announcement was simply a suggestion for what the coalition could do now, or whether it might indeed find its way into the 2015 Labour manifesto that caused concern.

For others, the decision to back £6,000 appeared to concede that tuition fees are here to stay. There are still a sizeable number of critics of the tuition fees system no matter what form it takes, and with any cap it might have. For them, putting forward a policy that is far from ideal with its only redeeming feature being that it’s not quite as bad as what the coalition has put forward doesn’t cut the mustard, even as a short term fix.

But whatever your position on tuition fees or a graduate tax, the debate has certainly been reignited. As the Labour party conference comes to a close, it now appears clearer that the £6,000 suggestion is simply a short-term position to demonstrate the coalition could do something different right now. As for what might appear in the 2015 manifesto, I suspect we’ll have to wait until the policy review is finally published.