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Labour brands Office for Students “not fit for purpose” and promises radical changes

Labour has today announced its plans for an overhaul of higher education, focusing on the role the Office for Students (OfS), the new regulator.

In a speech at the University and Colleges Union annual conference, Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner will say that the government’s vision for the OfS reflects all that is wrong with the Conservatives’ ‘free market dogma’ in higher education and “a system where market logic is imposed on public goods, where the forces of competition run rampant at the expense of students, staff and communities”.

Labour will “unwind the Tories’ failed free market experiment in higher education” by:
• Ending the duty placed on universities by the Office for Students to promote competition to reverse the Tories’ failed free market experiment in higher education and replace this duty with a duty to promote collaboration between other universities, schools, colleges and educational institutions.

• Committing the OfS to report on diversity in university staff and student bodies and propose bold action to make universities “genuinely representative of the communities they serve”.

• Mandating that staff are represented on the board of the OfS to ensure that the views and interests of university staff are reflected in decision-making.

• Reverse the Tories’ decision to allow new higher education providers to have degree-awarding powers from day one and require new providers to have their degrees validated by a partner institution before they are granted their own degree-awarding powers.

• Instructing the OfS to enforce and ensure compliance with Labour’s commitment to 20:1 pay ratio between the highest and lowest paid members of staff in publicly-funded bodies, including universities.

• Ban Vice-Chancellors from sitting on their own remuneration committees.

• Strengthen and expand the transparency duty in the Higher Education and Research Act to include the following characteristics in which specific and significant disadvantages in the education sector can occur: age, disabilities, care leavers, those with a caring responsibility, sexuality.

• Require the OfS to report on diversity in higher education, and set out steps to improve diversity and representation in our universities.

• Set an explicit objective for the OFS to avoid the bankruptcy of any higher education provider and give the OfS the powers needed to provide emergency loans if they are needed for a provider to remain viable. To ensure that there are no ‘rewards for failure’, Labour will put in place sanctions for senior management of institutions that regularly require this kind of intervention.

On the ending of the duty to promote competition, Angela Rayner is said “The Tories have unleashed a failed free market experiment in higher education. They have created a system that goes to the very heart of their ideology – a system where market logic is imposed on public goods and where the forces of competition run rampant at the expense of students, staff and communities.

“The Tories’ obsession with free market dogma has gone too far. Education is a public good and should be treated as such. Our universities are there for all of us.”

On universities being on the brink of bankruptcy, Angela Rayner said “These are not profit-making private companies that can simply be left at the mercy of market forces. Ministers cannot simply bury their heads in the sand when we’re faced with losing some of these vital institutions.

“Students would be left with immense uncertainty about their futures and entire communities would lose one of their major academic, economic, and social institutions.”

On the need to improve diversity in higher education, Angela Rayner said “When it comes to gender, race, class, region, disability and sexual orientation our universities need to do much more, and under Labour they will be held to account.

“Like much of our establishment, our universities are too male, pale and stale and do not represent the communities that they serve and modern Britain.”

On degree awarding powers, Angela Rayner said “New providers being given degree awarding powers on day one is an ideological move, designed to lower barriers to entry for providers and incentivise new private providers.

“It puts the education of students at risk, who would be gambling on a new provider with no guarantee that they would end their time at university with a valuable degree, or in fact a degree at all. We will reverse this change to protect not only the interests of students, but the value of the title of a university in England.”

On Vice Chancellor pay, Angela Rayner said “Universities are there to serve the public good, and they receive taxpayers’ money to do it.

“We will implement a 20:1 pay ratio between the highest and lowest paid members of staff in our universities, and ban Vice-Chancellors from sitting on the bodies that decide their own pay.”