People will always remember Labour’s 2017 election campaign for the party’s promise to scrap undergraduate tuition fees. But Labour’s pledge of free higher education was just the standout feature of a broader vision for an integrated nationwide system of education for all, free at the point of need – the National Education Service.
The proposal for an NES did not come as a complete surprise, since Jeremy Corbyn had first promised it in his 2015 leadership campaign. But until last summer’s election, he had said little about what this idea would mean in practice. Now, with Labour drawing closer to power, it is time for the left to turn stirring words into a practical blueprint.
Labour has started that process by publishing for consultation a draft charter for the new NES. In this report, the Fabian Society has picked up the baton, by bringing together leading voices from the world of education to propose how Labour’s new service might be brought to life.
Labour’s charter makes it clear that the left’s ambitions for education stretch much further than simply providing for free what is currently available at a price – or than reversing the recent collapse in participation across many forms of learning. Between them the contributors to this report argue for a National Education Service that is:
- Accountable – democratically accountable and open at every level
- Devolved – with local decision-making which delivers coherent, integrated local provision, albeit within a national framework
- Empowering – ensuring that learners, employees and institutions are all enabled and respected
- Genuinely lifelong – with opportunities for retraining and chances to re-engage at every stage, and parity for part-time and digital distance learning
- Coordinated – flexible pathways for learners between providers and strong partnerships involving providers, employers, unions and technology platforms
- Outcome-focused – designed to meet social and economic needs, with far more adults receiving productivity-enhancing education but also recognising that learning brings wider benefits
The challenge for the National Education Service is to recreate the best of the NHS, not the worst of it. Labour must strive to establish the strong values, ethos and entitlements of a national institution, but not the top-down silos and inflexibilities. Instead the NES should be based on local networks of diverse providers – as Jessica Studdert puts it in her contribution ‘local learning systems’.
To create an integrated, learner-centred NES, other contributors call for a national system of credit accumulation and transfer, across all forms of provision; families or clusters of different institutions, with shared responsibility for smooth transitions; and a personalised digital portal, that should include guidance, records of qualifications and credits, online learning tasters, application systems and networks of support.
But money still matters and Labour needs to think further about what an NES ‘free at the point of use’ should mean. The party’s 2017 election policy was for free tuition for a first degree and for learning in an FE college, and the manifesto costings assumed no change in the quantity of provision. But free education will presumably increase demand and there is also the question of closing the huge funding disparities across the education system. Labour’s 2017 calculations are likely to be the floor for how much a future NES might cost.
A debate is needed, then, about how much funding will be required and where it should come from. And however much money is on offer, budget-setters will need to decide how many places, and at what cost, should be provided. Just responding to learner demand is unlikely to maximise national economic and social outcomes, if in many instances education is ‘under-consumed’, while at the same time an enthusiastic minority accesses whatever provision the system will allow.
The roles and responsibilities of employers also need to be thought through. One proposal is for the new apprenticeship levy to be expanded into a scheme for funding almost all recognised qualifications obtained through the workplace. This would be a parallel track within the NES, standing alongside the taxpayer-funded tuition delivered directly by FE and HE institutions.
And as there should be no limit on our aspirations for people’s learning – even if there must be a cap on publicly funded free places – the left should explore whether there is also a role for learner accounts (or other new social security entitlements) to subsidise and incentivise learning outside the core public entitlement. Similarly, income-contingent loans might still have a place, if they can enable inclusive access to maintenance costs and second degrees.
The promise of free tuition raises as many questions as it answers and the debate about money and entitlements will continue. But the decisions Labour politicians take on funding can now be subservient to a broader vision – of a national service designed to deliver true lifelong learning and a huge increase in the skills of the British workforce.