England's tertiary education system is broken - which party will fix it?
The tertiary education system in England is broken. We have extortionate undergraduate tuition fees and a student finance system that leaves those from the poorest backgrounds graduating with the largest debt.
We also have critical underfunding of further education which leaves many colleges on the brink of collapse and adult education in rapid decline.
This election is the chance to change this and there is a very stark choice being presented to voters about the future of our education.
At the National Union of Students we have long been campaigning for the radical change that students need.
This has been embedded in our campaign for the establishment of a National Education Service that would be accessible, funded and lifelong.
It is very promising to see that most of the major parties have committed to policies that would move towards this – the Brexit Party, whose promise to slash loan interest rates would actually solely benefit high earners – being the only exception.
The Conservatives and Lib Dems have both been vague on the exact reforms that they would enact were they to hold power.
The Conservatives have promised a much needed £2 billion to upgrade the further education college estate, which is positive even if this would not increase funding for further education to pre-2010 levels.
Of course, students need high quality space to learn and develop with state of the art facilities – but what good is a shiny building when the Conservatives are not promising to solve the staffing recruitment crisis in further education (FE) or bring in maintenance funding for FE students?
Similarly, their promise to ‘consider’ the Augar Review, which recommended a £1billion cash injection for FE as well as changes to higher education funding, is disappointing given they had previously told us to expect a full response this side of Christmas.
We have our own concerns about the recommendations of the review but by not telling us exactly what they plan to do we can be sure that they will not deliver the radical reform students are desperate for.
Similarly, the Liberal Democrats have promised increased funding for FE and a Young People’s Premium for disadvantaged people in education aged 16-18, which could be an interesting way to replace the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). They have also pledged to reinstate maintenance grants.
Their policy to establish a review of higher education finance does recognise that the tuition fee increase that they voted for, 9 years ago this week, has been an utter failure – but we know the system needs an overhaul.
The longer we wait for another government body to tell us this, the longer students are left struggling with maintenance loans that don’t cover rising rents, a mental health crisis borne of a system that isolates us and a shocking lack of information, advice and guidance about their futures.
In this vein, the proposal of a Skills Wallet to provide funding for retraining later in life is a step in the right direction, but the funding is minimal and will come too late for many. This alone will not put a stop to the decline in adult education we have seen in recent years.
In contrast the Green Party propose a much more radical agenda for education policy including raising the rate for 16-17 year-olds, giving sixth form colleges a capital expansion fund, fully funding higher education for all students and scrapping undergraduate tuition fees, writing off student debt for all those who paid over £9,000 fees and increasing the Adult Education Budget.
This would truly transform post-16 education and, combined with their proposal for a Universal Basic Income of £89 per week (which we assume would apply to students) would create a system that was truly accessible, funded and lifelong.
Labour’s proposals for a National Education Service mirror our own in many respects.
They pledge to bring back EMA. They want to increase the post-16 funding base rate to mean that the further and adult education sectors will receive a steady supply of better funding. They also want to give everyone a free lifelong entitlement to Level 3 qualifications and six years training at Level 4-6.
These policies speak to a wider recognition of education as a public good that we should be encouraging all people to partake in and celebrating the wider benefits that this provides to society, rather than backwards rhetoric focused on abolishing the 50% target for HE participation.
They also go further than the Greens in pledging to end marketisation and redeveloping the funding formula so that all institutions have adequate funding and casualisation is ended.
In addition, Labour promise to restore maintenance grants which would redress the balance of funding towards disadvantaged students and open up opportunities for many more to enter higher education.
Politicians are clearly scared of a second ‘youthquake’ at this election. They know that we are not happy and are looking for real change to establish an education system that works for the public good. However it is very disappointing that there are still large omissions from all parties’ manifestos.
None of them have pledged to implement the reforms that the National Society of Apprentices’ have been calling for. There is no mention of greater protections for students and apprentices.
In the shadow of large training providers and universities going into administration in the past year, this is a worrying error.
Likewise although the parties differ greatly on their promises for renters in the private accommodation sector none of them directly address the spiralling costs of student accommodation and none recognise the need to urgently abolish the racist and Islamophobic Prevent Duty.
These are just some of the further reforms that students will be looking for the next government to make and you can be sure that we will be out there on polling day making our voices heard loud and clear.
Zamzam Ibrahim is the President of the National Union of Students
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