Come what May, Labour must defend widening participation in higher education

The “radical review” into tuition fees promised by May today will look into overhauling a regressive system she helped create that punishes the most disadvantaged students. It may on the surface be a somewhat welcome product of Labour pressure and a positive argument for the continued participation of young people in our politics. We know already, however, that reforms will go nowhere near far or fast enough under the Conservatives and that only Labour is promising a clear-cut policy on the injustice of tuition fees.

But hidden in the details, reported by the Guardian last week, is the hint that this review may come at the expense of the policy of “widening participation”. If universities face demands to lower their fees, they may be offered a loosening of the requirements to spend funds on outreach programmes and their own bursaries aimed at disadvantaged students.

Already, some universities have shown a tendency to prioritise stuffing the pockets of their vice-chancellors, and many have launched assaults on their own grants. A number of the Russell Group universities have in fact regressed in their widening participation efforts, with even fewer students from low-income neighbourhoods being able to access top universities. As it stands, privileged students outnumber the least advantaged students 2 to 1 across the sector, a ratio that widens dramatically among top institutions. This is a failure to live up to the primary condition the Tories gave for raising fees in the first place.

This failure is an argument for reformation of access agreements and widening participation. Universities remain undisciplined for not making the necessary progress. Clearly, widening participation efforts at some of our top universities need to be improved – but it is imperative that they are not scrapped.

If these measures are scrapped entirely, rather than reformed for greater efficiency, this review may end with the further decline of diversity in higher education, despite the Tories’ grand rhetoric today.

A Tory promise to cut fees will not come without its damaging “but” and there is every chance this will mean, as ever, further deregulation and regression. Now is an important time for Labour to pre-emptively emphasise its commitment to widening participation, promoting its expansion as part of a far more radical package of reform than the Conservatives will ever muster.

A good voice on the matter has been provided by David Lammy, who has recently highlighted the incredible elitism of Oxbridge and suggested some viable solutions that would involve those universities doing more for transparency and reaching out to state schools. Angela Rayner has also voiced her commitment to this. As a party we should be applying clear-cut, practical policies for diversification across the HE sector, and ensure our universities commit to their access obligations, come what may with fees.

To commit to further radicalising widening participation, we must also clarify and repeat our promise that a fee reduction comes from the pockets of the already wealthy, and not from the widening participation students. This is our point of distinction compared to Tory priorities: we ask the wealthy to contribute to a truly universal education, while the Tories would ask students to bear the brunt of their reforms. Our fees reductions come from progressive taxation, not from targeting the most disadvantaged that benefit from outreach programmes. It will strengthen our hand further to offer more clarification on what and who exactly this means.

The bigger picture of this debate means the focus cannot be on fees alone. We must be talking about not just the restoration of maintenance grants – hopefully one positive that will come from the review, albeit far too late and a mere correction of a recent policy concocted under May herself. We must also challenge the Tories and urge them to compel universities to hold up their own widening participation commitments. Regulation on university-level grants should not only be protected, but strengthened. A reduction of fees cannot go hand-in-hand with a regressive “reward” to universities to drop their access obligations.

Fees reduction should not come at the expense of low-income students. We have to repeatedly make this known, and protect, strengthen and champion widening participation during the review. The Tories cannot be trusted to do the same.

Jade Azim is the co-editor of Open Labour.


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