Labour vows to work with HE unions ‘as partners, not adversaries’

Shadow higher education minister Matt Western promises positive, long-lasting reform under a Labour government

Three students

Labour’s shadow minister for higher education Matt Western has accused government ministers of “collective amnesia” regarding the work of the “dedicated, compassionate people working in Britain’s universities.”

Mr Western was speaking at UNISON’s national higher education conference, in Newcastle, where he told delegates: “The pandemic reminded those that needed reminding that society and institutions cannot function without those working in important services and support roles.

“People such as yourselves and those you represent keep the proverbial show on the road, keep the lights on, the doors open and the rooms ready so that young people can access education.”

The MP for Warwick and Leamington said that his parents – his mother a school assistant, father a primary teacher – had instilled in him “their principles of fair reward, of the value of public service and believing in education as a tool for social justice”, principles he was determined to bring to bear on a Labour government.

In the meantime, continuing to criticise the current government, he noted that in 2022 there were 16 education ministers across both Houses of Parliament, and no fewer than nine held responsibilities for higher education.

“Higher education, in particular, has too often been viewed more as a political battleground than a force for public good. Higher education’s potential to reduce inequality, drive economic growth, and support regional development has been side-lined in favour of culture wars.

“I can hardly believe my ears when ministers make bold statements on how much they seemingly care about education. They have had almost 13 years to harness the power of education, but instead they have presided over a decade of underfunding of every part of the education sector, a period of growing inequalities, and sought to introduce measures to restrict access to university… I fear that the government’s policy is closing the door on many people’s dreams of a university education.”

Addressing the experience of the hall directly, he said: “Clearly, ministers’ total lack of interest has also impacted on you and your colleagues. The sector is under far greater financial strain than it was 30 years ago, it is expected to do more with less and has, at times, been asked to do the impossible.

“If your pay has failed to match inflation for the past 14 years, your collective frustration should come as no surprise to your employers. [Your] goodwill and values of public service only stretch so far. They do not pay the bills, and they do not put food on the table.”

Mr Western acknowledged that, were Labour to win power in 2024 or early 2025, the Tories’ “reckless” handling of the economy would leave huge challenges and no quick fixes.

However, “the mess we will inherit should we enter government should not dent our ambition for long-lasting reform, guided by a belief in education as a force for shaping the citizens of the future.

“I am committed to working with you, other education unions, and sector bodies as partners, not adversaries. These relationships will prove to be the building blocks for meaningful change.

“From there we can go about finally introducing Lifelong Learning entitlements, reforming the skills landscape, preparing our young people for the green economy of 2030, and equipping them with the skills they need to be ready for work, ready for life.”