Bridget Phillipson
Bridget Phillipson

Speech to Universities UK

7 September 2023

I do want to apologise for not being with you in person. I regret that I’m not there to see you all, but I am extremely grateful to Sally and to Vivienne, for giving me the opportunity today to set out an outline of the shape of Labour’s thinking on higher education, on universities. And I want not just to draw a contrast, with thirteen years of a government that regards universities not as a public good but as a political battlefield, but to set out a wider vision of why education matters, why universities matter, and why I am not simply privileged but proud to be here today.

At its simplest, as Keir Starmer and I have set out, education is all about opportunity. And to understand that properly, we need a conception of opportunity which is broad and manifold, not simply narrow and financial. A conception of opportunity which links to the freedoms which for so many of us university represented, and continues to represent; the freedoms universities give, and the lasting freedoms which university education endows and unlocks:

Intellectual freedom.

Economic freedom.

Social freedom.

Cultural freedom.

Those freedoms we see it as is government’s role to enlarge and to expand: the belief, today distinctively Labour, that government can be and must be a force for good, a power not just for administration but for transformation.

Only Labour has a vision of how government can empower us both as individuals, and as a society. Only Labour understands, that the purpose of government is to extend freedoms, to extend opportunities, for each of us, and for all of us. And that is opportunity in every sense. Intellectual opportunity, to learn, to enrich our minds with knowledge and with skills, to join in the great collective endeavour to understand our world and our universe. Economic opportunity, to acquire the expertise and the ability to achieve and succeed in the economy of today and tomorrow; to be ready for the world of work after university, to have choice and agency to make a living for ourselves and our families. Social opportunity, to meet people not merely like us, but unlike us; to share and talk, to sharpen our thinking and expand our horizons, to challenge our assumptions and our prejudices, to enjoy sports and games together; for so many of us, to come out of our shells, and into ourselves. Cultural opportunity, to open our eyes and ears to the rich heritage and thriving present of our country and cultures, to experience arts, music, sport, drama, natural history, to have the chance not merely to read and observe, to watch, and to listen, but to get involved: to engage, to write, to participate, to pursue and to perform.

All of that matters, it matters profoundly. But education, and opportunity, cannot and must not be considered merely as goods for individuals. The opportunity that education offers is not simply about the citizens of tomorrow, but the society, communities, companies and country of tomorrow. The vision we must have of how we deliver education – not just higher education, but every level and every stage, from our youngest children through their early years and into schools, onto colleges and universities and crucially all our lives long, that must speak to a broader vision of the society we should build.

That’s why I am clear that I have not merely the most interesting job in the Shadow Cabinet, but the most important. Because education is about more than the experiences of people going through our institutions today; more than the institutions themselves, valuable and fantastic as they are; more than staff who work in them, central as their work is to the vision we must have. The vision of our future that Labour has, that the next Labour government will have, is profoundly optimistic, profoundly social, profoundly ambitious. That our future can be greater than our past, that our best days lie ahead of us. That the future is something we shape together, not face alone. That a proud history is a challenge to our generation, the foundation for building a brighter future; not an invitation to wallow in myth or dream of better yesterdays.

And that the society and economy we will build, and in which today’s young people will live, can be not just profoundly different from today, but profoundly better. We are determined, too, that the vision we have is not merely imagined but delivered. That is why Keir Starmer has set out Missions which we will carry from opposition into government, missions which represent not just a new way of framing values but a new way of delivering our priorities.

Rising growth.

Falling crime.

Healthier lives.

Greener energy.

And a determination that for each of us and for all of us, background will be no barrier to opportunity.

Because we want our country to be not merely an economic success, not merely safer, healthier, more sustainable and more secure, but also a better society – welcoming, compassionate, well-informed, tolerant, egalitarian, cultured, resilient: above all, more democratic. A country which is not just a source of pride for our own people, but a beacon to all the world.

That vision is one so far from that of today’s government. What I want to emphasize today is that the brighter prospect we want, that dream of the city on a hill, that is a vision in which our universities are absolutely central.

Universities are central, to the growth we need to see in our country, not only as one of Britain’s greatest and most successful export industries, one whose graduates grace, as research showed just last month, the chancelleries and presidencies of a quarter of the nations of the world, but as the engines of opportunity which spread skills, learning, research and expertise in every corner of this country, which equip our people here in Britain to succeed on every stage and at every scale. That’s why Labour’s Start-Ups review placed so much emphasis on universities’ role in driving not just innovation but success – tracking what works and what doesn’t, developing options on founder-track agreements, and spreading and embedding the culture, so strong already in so many British universities, of turning ideas into innovation and innovation into reality.

Universities are central, for the teaching with which you light up lives, through which you prepare the next generation to shape and design the healthier, safer, greener, world we will build. That is why Labour has already committed to the most ambitious expansion of university medical schools in a generation. We cannot go on expecting the rest of the world to train the doctors and nurses we will need tomorrow. And under Labour, we will not. We will end the tax breaks that non-doms today enjoy, and invest that money in the medical schools our country and our people need so much.

Universities are central, for the research with which you light our world, from the vaccines saving millions of lives not just in Britain but across our planet, to the pioneering research in so many of our universities which is not just making that brighter future possible, but building so much of it already. That is why Labour is committed to the target that across the whole economy, Britain should spend 3% of our GDP on research and development. We believe in the value of the research in our universities which illuminates our past and explains our present as well as shapes our future: that tells us who we are, that challenges us to face the truth not simply to wrap ourselves in myth, that evidences the decisions we need to make for today and tomorrow, that sees expertise not as the enemy of our people, but as their strength.

It’s why we have looked on in horror as the government has dragged its feet on rejoining Horizon. Why we have despaired at every month of delay, damaging our science base, and damaging our country, before today’s belated announcement.

Universities are central, for the anchors you represent in communities in towns and cities across in this country, working with councils and companies, in particular for the relationships you build with sixth form and further education colleges, and with employers and researchers in private and public sectors alike. Tertiary education as a whole should be a true republic of letters, of co-operation to deliver learning and opportunities, with higher and further education institutions working together, with incentives to collaborate and join up, not to compete and fracture. And that is why Labour will review the way the whole landscape of tertiary education works, ensuring the Lifelong Learning Entitlement helps bind our systems together, improving how articulation agreements work to deliver better for students and society alike.

Because I see the difference universities make in my own community. The Sunderland of my youth was different not just in its industries – shipbuilding, coalmining, glassmaking, but in the opportunity it offered, for each of us and for all of us. Because the opportunity that the growth and flourishing of the University of Sunderland has brought, has not been just for its students of our city’s young people.


It has widened all our horizons, brought fresh faces and new voices to our streets, our homes and our shops. It has reminded us that for a city and a country like ours, we succeed when we look outward, when we welcome ideas and difference, when we build a future that is not just a beacon for our own students, but for all the world.

And I know from my colleagues that that story, of universities as engines of change, of change that stretches beyond lecture halls, laboratories, seminar rooms and sports fields, into communities and homes across whole regions, is echoed right across England and indeed right across the United Kingdom.

Now everyone here knows that a vision, a direction of travel, may be all very well, but there are hard and difficult issues that face each of you, and that it will fall to me to deal with them, if Labour wins at the next election. And every time I meet one of you, meet a vice-chancellor, I hear a very similar list. Those of you I have met, forgive me: those I have not yet met, know that I am listening. I’ve mentioned some already.

Horizon, and the growing barriers to international co-operation.

Student finance, and the regressive changes for students starting now.

International students, and the growing dependence of your institutions on the income they bring.

China, and the Janus-faced inconsistency of the Conservatives’ approach.

Capital funding.

The demographic bulge hitting in the years ahead.

The challenges you face as you seek to be a force for change and regeneration in the communities you serve.

The challenges of recruiting and retaining top staff.

A politicized regulator, lacking both the respect and vision it needs to be effective.

A wider sense that this government treats universities with contempt, as a front in the culture wars; a source of cheap headlines; left to run on fumes; not nurtured and cherished. I hear those messages loud and clear. I understand those challenges. And I’m here today because I want you to know that I am determined that together, we can and will rise to each and every one of them.

The tragedy we face is simply that the damage done by thirteen years means we cannot solve them all at once. But let me be clear that reform is coming. And because it is teaching that is the first and greatest calling for our universities, student finance will be the first to see change, although by no means the last. We have been clear about that from opposition and we will be clear about that from power. The Tory changes which bite a first cohort of students this autumn are desperately unfair. More unfair on women. More unfair on low earners. More unfair, not just for a few short years, but all through a generation of working lives, with higher loan repayments eating away at pay for young graduates just as they’re starting out on their working lives, and deterring older learners from retraining or upskilling.

Future nursing graduates repaying about £60 more a month. The Tories’ choices are hammering the next generation of nurses, teachers and social workers; of engineers, of designers and researchers. It’s wrong. It’s unsustainable. And it’s going to change. And why I tell you today that the next Labour government, whenever it is elected, will move swiftly to right these wrongs. Because access to university should be an opportunity, not a barrier. Already, proposals have been put forward for how the government could make the existing system fairer and more progressive. Modelling showing that the government could reduce the monthly repayments, for every single new graduate, without adding a penny to government borrowing or general taxation. Those are the choices, and that is the approach I am determined we will take: reworking the present system to give scope for a month-on-month tax cut for graduates, putting money back in people’s pockets when they most need it. For young graduates this will give them breathing space at the start of their working lives, and as they bring up families.

And I know, that student finance is only part of the problem. We get that. But the Britain we inherit will be one, where as the news had made all too clear this week, where every public service is at breaking point, where the public finances have been comprehensively trashed, where the public realm is literally crumbling round the next generation. And the scale of the challenge will be vast. We will not solve every problem at once, but we will work with you to tackle them in turn. Our priorities, our choices, reflect our values, but we know, as you do, that there is a long road ahead for the universities you represent to build the better and stronger institutions we all want to see.

Because I’m not here just to tell you that Labour values universities. I’m here to tell you Labour wants to see universities doing more and doing better. Things have moved on, I’m pleased to say, since my own time at university. But not enough. There is more to do on widening participation, on getting people to know that university can be for them, on accepting that that is a role for universities and not just for schools. There is more to do on supporting people from nontraditional backgrounds to get on at university, as well as to get in. There is best practice, though from too few of you, on mental health support, on inclusion of care-experienced young people, that I want to see in every university, in every college, on every campus. And we know that part of that, too, will be about the Office for Students. Politicizing a regulator is always a mistake. Today I am told again and again that the OfS doesn’t just lack respect, it doesn’t have the powers or tools to have either the effectiveness that students deserve or the focus universities expect. A focus on the issues that keep it in the papers, not the issues that keep students from succeeding.

Because as right across education, just as with Ofsted for our schools and early years, the issue with regulation today isn’t that it’s there. It’s that it’s not good enough. I want the Office for Students to be a regulator that provides you with powerful and constructive challenge, not simply paperwork and chidings. And that is going to change.

Because for me this isn’t simply political. None of it is. It’s much more than that. It’s personal. My own life has taught me the value of education. Because I was lucky. A family filled with love, who knew how much learning mattered. A school which saw the value and worth of every one of us. The chance, the privilege, to go to a great university. But life should not come down to luck. Education transformed my life. I know it can transform every life.

And it will be my mission, with you, to build a Britain where background is no barrier, where excellence is for everyone, and where education is once again, at the heart of how we build the better future our people deserve.

Thank you.


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