Williamson to break silence on university chaos as PM unveils ‘new’ education policy

Sienna Rodgers
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Where’s Williamson? Thousands of students – including freshers who will be at university and living away from home for the first time – are locked into their halls, some with security stationed outside their accommodation and running out of provisions. But Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, perhaps bruised by the A-Level results chaos of the summer, has been nowhere in sight. Labour’s Kate Green has called for an end to his “Invisible Man act”, and indeed her Tory counterpart will appear in the Commons at around 12.30pm to deliver a statement on university returns.

It doesn’t sound as if ministers have an answer so far for those students demanding refunds. While the National Union of Students and the University College Union have said the government should help cash-strapped universities with such requests, students are simply being referred to the normal complaints processes at the moment. If politicians hadn’t marketised higher education, which leads to students understandably seeing their experience as a commodified service and their limited contact hours as representing poor value for money, the current situation would be less messy.

The Prime Minister will announce a new education policy today: a ‘lifetime skills guarantee’, i.e. free college courses for people without A-Levels or equivalent qualifications. This addresses one of the key criticisms of Rishi Sunak’s latest coronavirus package last week, which made little mention of training and retraining despite how crucial that will be to the recovery (and the transition to a more Covid-suited economy, which appears to be what the government is now aiming for). Labour has called for a national retraining strategy, but Kate Green brands Boris Johnson’s initiative “a mix of reheated old policies” and points out that the funding will not be available until April.

“By then, many workers could have been out of work for nearly a year,” the Shadow Education Secretary said. “These measures will not reverse the devastating impact of a decade of cuts, and will not give workers the skills and support they need in the months ahead.” It seems the scheme is less about mitigating the effect of coronavirus-related unemployment, and more about filling skills gaps in the long-term – but again the devastating impact and urgency of the very real job losses coming next month seems lost on the government.

On LabourList, we’ve got plenty of news, analysis and comment to offer already this week: the nominations in Labour’s national executive committee race, the nominations in UNISON’s general secretary election, an interview with Welsh Labour government minister Jeremy Miles on the internal market bill, and a less serious chat with the founder of Labour Party Graphic Designers. And in one week, we will be joining UK in a Changing Europe to host an event with Rachel Reeves, Stephen Bush and Anand Menon on Labour’s Brexit policy. You can sign up here.

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