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Public Policy|Southampton

Conference special: Lab16

Labour Conference – method in the madness

Attending a political conference for a major party is a bewildering experience. Those going as members and activists are there for inspiration, information and celebration. Getting caught up in the major speeches, attending the parties and gawking at the TV cameras and political reporters you only normally see on the telly, it’s an exciting experience. The people you believe in are systematically telling you why the people you don’t believe in shouldn’t be believed.

I don’t know what sort of conference Labour members have had, but those who are here seem to be enjoying the experience. It is however quieter than the last Labour Conference I attended (in 2014), and of course some of the more well know Labour faces have stayed away. There is less of a crush in the exhibition hall, and indeed less people spending their money on exhibiting at all, but for all I see on the news broadcasts about party splits and people punching walls, there is a buzz here.

What you don’t see on the TV coverage are the fringe events. There are more than a hundred spread over the 3 days, and this is where areas of policy are discussed and debated. And it’s why I am here. In amongst the big staged-managed statements, this is where there is some intelligent conversation about key areas of policy, and I have been moving my way around those events focussed on higher education.

There is a lot to discuss. The effect of Brexit on universities and the issues associated with the Higher Education Bill going through Parliament are dominating, with the new suggestion that all universities should sponsor a school just adding to the sense of crisis. And yet, in the midst of it all, I find Labour politicians who really get it – understand the issues in depth and are doing there level best to fight for the best result for English higher education.

Before joining the University, I spent 17 years as a civil servant. I saw a lot of politicians from different parties, and in order to ensure political neutrality, I was suspicious of all of them. So it comes as a shock to hear politicians talking sense about higher education, and with a depth of knowledge I might not otherwise have given them credit for. Gordon Marsden, Roberta Blackman-Woods and Daniel Zeichner all have a real sense of what universities are about.

Is there Party Politics here? Of course, but much less than in the main conference. And as always, it’s easier to be in opposition throwing stones than do actually deliver things. But still, there’s depth here. Gordon Marsden, Labour’s HE & FE spokesman, reflects soberly that a significant majority of voters in his constituency voted for Brexit, even though with European Structural Funds they have more to lose than most. He is not arguing to reverse the Brexit decision, but is focussing on the massive challenge which Brexit will bring universities. It’s vital for students, universities and politicians to work together and argue for the best deal for universities from Brexit, aiming for the “soft” end of possible Brexit outcome. What universities need is more certainty (at least for a period of transition), and a national commitment to R&D.

In that environment, the Higher Education and Research Bill is a huge distraction, with Jo Johnson “woefully myopic of the impact of Brexit on the Bill”. So there’s a big push to pause the Bill, but no rose-rimmed spectacles that the Government are likely to move in that direction. So there’s also real work, in the Bill Committee, to scrutinise the Bill in detail. There are real concerns about student representation, marketization of HE and the role of private providers, the separation of research and education, and the effect of the bill for social mobility and poorer students. There has also been detailed conversations about the TEF and the metrics proposed. All agree that the metrics for the Teaching Excellence Framework do not measure teaching excellence – and here perhaps lies an opportunity for universities. If a TEF is now perhaps inevitable, the format of it is not, and universities should be as clear as possible as to potential metrics and operations.

So in amongst all the high politics and madness, there’s some sense being talked up here in Liverpool.



Gavin Costigan

Director, Public Policy|Southampton





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