I would seek alternative funding model for HE, says shadow universities minister

Emma Hardy MP called for the student grants debate to be reopened and said university “should be part of people’s entire lives”

Shadow universities minister Emma Hardy has stated that if she became universities minister her first act would be to seek an alternative funding model for higher education.

Speaking to University of Greenwich vice-chancellor Professor Jane Harrington at the University Alliance Summit today, Ms Hardy reiterated Labour’s opposition to tuition fees – while stopping short of declaring an official policy.

“Obviously, as you know the Labour Party don’t think students should have to pay tuition fees to begin with but I do think we need to reopen the debate around grants, and I think maintenance loans do lead to a situation where students who start off with with the greatest disadvantage leave with the greatest debt. That’s a problem.

This idea that not having tuition fees is so radical frustrates me a bit – look at Europe, look at Scotland – Emma Hardy

“I’m not announcing any policies right now but these are the kind of conversations we all need to be having.”

“This idea that not having tuition fees is so radical frustrates me a bit – look at Europe, look at Scotland. We do seem to be able to survive without tuition fees. People argue tuition fees haven’t put people from disadvantaged backgrounds off from attending, but my response to that is always to point at the part-time figures, and the mature students figures and how they’ve been decimated, and we know part of that is because of tuition fees.”

The impact of Covid-19 on the country’s jobs market had, Ms Hardy said, brought the topic under the spotlight. “How palatable is it to say to somebody who’s worked 15 years in the hospitality industry and wants to retrain and reskill and they’re maybe in their 50s, ‘oh by the way that’s going to cost you £23,000?'”

Asked what would be the first issue in HE she would want to address if she became universities minister after a snap election, Ms Hardy replied she would have a plan for an alternative funding model for universities.

“There is an opportunity to build on the public’s goodwill towards universities, to say ‘Well, shouldn’t we start looking at an alternative funding model for our universities? Do we actually think a funding model based just on the numbers of individual students you can get through the door is a sustainable model?’ Because if the model is based on every university continuing to be able to grow – that might not be able to happen if the international students don’t return in the numbers they have done previously.”

Long-term ambitions

Asked what her long-term ambitions for higher education sector were, Ms Hardy said she believed every young person in England should have the opportunity to study the subject of their choice where they live. She said that funding should be provided to prevent “cold spots” where HEIs do not offer the full range of subjects, leaving some local students unable to access certain subjects.

“Disadvantaged students are more likely to be commuter students, and my fear with Covid-19 is that universities will shrink the number of courses that they make available. This will harm and hurt students from a disadvantaged background.”

Retraining workers

The impact of Covid-19 on the UK jobs market, said Ms Hardy, would lead to job losses in retail and hospitality – and universities should respond accordingly, by helping get unemployed people into healthcare.

“We’re going to have to retrain and upskill people in our country. Covid-19 has accelerated the changes from the fourth Industrial Revolution.

“Universities up and down the country should be saying right now, how are we going to take those mature students, make them feel that university is a place they belong, and retrain and reskill them for areas where we know there’s going to be jobs growth? And one of the few areas where we know there’s going to be jobs growth is health.”

Too often, university is thought of as something people do when you’re 18, rather than something that should be part of people’s entire lives – Emma Hardy

Mature and part-time learners

Speaking of her keen interest in the needs of mature and part-time learners, Ms Hardy also said she felt that, while most MPs valued universities, they did not always “recognise the importance of ‘second-chance’ universities – not everyone has a seamless transition and we need to have interventions to support them. That’s the bit that’s missing.

“Too often, university is thought of as something people do when you’re 18, rather than something that should be part of people’s entire lives. One of the positives that could come out of the Covid-19 crisis is that universities see themselves as organisations that are there throughout a person’s career, at whatever stage in their life they need to go back and retrain and reskill.”

Emma Hardy is MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle.

The annual University Alliance Summit is for senior leaders of professional and technical universities. The theme of this year’s Summit was ‘Building on our strengths and serving our communities through crisis and beyond’.

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