British universities are a national achievement. World renowned centres of learning and research which attract students and academics from all over the globe. At their best they sit at the heart of our towns and cities, bringing new jobs, opportunities and prosperity to the communities they serve: a walk around my own city of Sunderland brings home the impact that universities and their students have made in the last generation.

Our government should be immensely proud of our universities, yet after 12 years of Conservative governments there a is void where an ambitious vision for the future of higher education should be.

We’re now four years on from the Conservatives announcing a wide-ranging review into post-18 education, covering everything from student choice, to access and skills provision. The government hailed the “Augar review” as a step change in delivering for young people, but as a further cohort of students look ahead to their graduations this summer, many would be forgiven for asking where that ambition has gone.

Opening up access to university education is a Labour success story and one of which I’m a proud beneficiary. It was under Harold Wilson in the 1960s that higher education took off. In only a couple of generations, university education has changed utterly, from being the preserve of a small elite to an aspiration of millions of young people.

And for so many parents across our country a university education is central to their ambitions for their children. Recent polling shows that 65 per cent of parents with children under age 10 and 70 per cent of parents with children aged 11-15 say they want their children to go to university. Labour harnessed this ambition in aiming for half of young people to attend university, an ambition met the same year the Augar review was announced.

But in recent years, the university sector has been in limbo. Not only is the government failing to build on the role of universities in supporting regeneration across our country, but it seems intent on dragging the sector down.

The universities minister sadly personifies the government’s failure. Time and again she shows her focus is on universities as an electoral battlefield, not as a public good. When given the chance to comment, ministers criticise, insulting the students who are working incredibly hard for degrees, that their government has decried as near worthless.

From saddling students with mountains of debt and overseeing a flatlining in the number of students eligible for free school meals moving onto higher education, to the creation of the Office for Students now set to be empowered to cut funding for courses ministers consider not up to scratch: all of these are Conservative decisions.

The Conservatives are trying to distract from their own failure by parroting cheap lines about “Mickey Mouse” degrees, but they cannot hide from the last 12 years.

Labour in government had a vision of our universities as engines of opportunity and it’s that legacy on which we need to build. A strong universities sector will be central to Labour’s plan to ensure every young person leaves education ready for work and life, enabling students to achieve their dreams and supporting our towns and cities to prosper.

This article was originally published in The Times Red Box on the 18th February 2022

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