Should Labour go to town with its Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion Ser­vice?

John Mor­gan, deputy news ed­i­tor, Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION -

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.

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