Should Labour go to town with its National Education Service?
John Morgan, deputy news editor, Times Higher Education
What do we know about Labour’s National Education Service? What has been established beyond doubt is that it would be a service, focused on education, available nationally.
Shadow higher education minister Gordon Marsden attempted to flesh out the vision at fringe meetings at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool last week, saying that the NES would prioritise lifelong learning and aim to break down the “silos” between higher and further education, academic and vocational education. Then, striking a note that was bitterly divisive by comparison, Marsden added that his most fervent desire was to see world peace achieved and that fluffy bunny rabbits are really lovely.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, tweeted that he had “spent hours today in meetings to hear about the National Education Service…Despite the valiant efforts of every speaker, I still haven’t the foggiest what it is.”
The idea behind the NES is to make all levels of education as universal, accessible and free as the National Health Service.
But beyond the abolition of tuition fees, how would universities look any different under the NES? Marsden talked about how further education, higher education and skills are “morphing” into each other and how “structures” need to reflect this. Perhaps some kind of super-agency created to fund and regulate all this would be one outcome of the policy (an outcome of interest only to specialists).
If Labour wants to start trying to give the NES idea popular appeal, it could start by seeing it as a solution to one of its biggest electoral problems: towns.
Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan, talked about towns at a separate fringe event on what Labour needs to do to win a majority in a general election. Earlier this year, Nandy launched a new thinktank, the Centre For Towns, which she described as “running out of a shed in Bolton” and which describes itself as focusing on “the viability and prosperity of our towns”.
Labour’s shift to an increasingly metropolitan voter base was clear at the last election. Despite making significant gains overall, the party lost six seats – all to the Tories and all in Brexitbacking constituencies – including Mansfield, Stoke-on-Trent South and Walsall North. Without winning such towns, there is no path to a majority for Labour.
Nandy said that to get decent jobs, younger people leave their homes (and families) in towns for distant cities. They are forced, she explained, to “choose between love and family and home, and work and opportunity”.
Perhaps this is where Labour should be starting with its NES: using it as part of a package of ideas designed to ensure that people in towns have decent lives, by addressing deindustrialisation and the absence of secure, well-paid jobs.
If Labour wants to address its electoral problems and bridge the cultural gap between cities and towns, then a commitment to spreading the benefits of tertiary education beyond cities via the NES might be part of the solution.
I haven’t thought through the details of how this might work in practice. But that’s within the spirit of Labour’s National Education Service so far.