Matt Western MP's speech at the IHE Annual Conference 2023

Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Matt Western, set out his views on the Labour vision for the higher education sector, from regulation to student choice.

Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Matt Western
Matt Western MP, Shadow Minister for Higher Education: Speech, IHE Annual Conference 2023

The full transcript of the Shadow Minister's address on 28 November at the IHE Annual Conference 2023:


Thank you. It is good to be speaking here today at the IHE Conference. I am thankful for the opportunity to speak to such a diverse set of education providers that are here today in this room.

The entry of new providers has had a significant impact on the education sector, contributing to its transformation in recent years. New providers are important in offering specialist provision, industry expertise and staying rooted in their industries while moving them forward. An example of this is Le Cordon Bleu, where Master Chefs are classically trained chefs and qualified teachers, whilst their lecturers contribute a wealth of knowledge gained through years of experience in both education and the hospitality industry. New providers are important as they provide alternative pathways to enter education, often engaging and teaching mature learners, international students, or partnering with FE colleges to create new pathways into higher education.

I know that IHE has several members with almost 100% mature students, including four providers focused on counselling and psychotherapy. These providers offer a flexible timetable where students can choose to learn on evenings and weekends. Another brilliant example is the Institute of Optimum Nutrition (ION), which offers flexible courses to not only those training for professional qualifications in nutrition, but to those across health, social care, and education who want to bring nutrition into their practice.

New providers are important as they address skills gaps, ensuring that people are equipped to approach the workplace with confidence, and that the economy has the people with a whole variety of skills that can drive it forward. An example of this is West Dean College, which teaches design, craft and conservation in Sussex and London. They offer a number of Degree courses, alongside a significant skills based offer. Students here are able to complete a whole variety of courses at Level 4 & 5 – such as Metalwork, Musical Instruments, Books and Binding, Clock making and Conservation, Interior Design, Garden Design and more. These students will set up their own workshops, join nationally recognised organisations like the National Archives or National Trust, or join the UK’s growing design, conservation and creative industries. It is providers like these that empower individuals to learn new skills, access new opportunities, all whilst boosting our economy.

New methods of provision bring in diverse and innovative ways of provision. New skills and ways of thinking being taught. New ways of teaching. Updating the sector to address what is most pressing and relevant today, whilst preparing for tomorrow.

This is why I am so excited to be here today. To outline my thoughts on the sector, and to tell you about Labour’s plans for higher education. I will start by outlining the value that I and Labour see in higher education. I will then run through the challenges I see facing the sector and then outline my concerns at how the government treats higher education, and my fears that these challenges are not adequately being addressed. I will also describe Labour plans to address these challenges, and our vision for the higher education sector. I hope to show how strongly Labour believes in the value of higher education, and how we want to engage with all parts of the sector, to work together to ensure that it thrives.

Ultimately, new higher education providers capture the real and tangible value that Higher education has. Universities are immensely valuable to the individuals that engage with them. By this I mean the ability to empower an individual. To shape one’s own life. To widen one’s outlook and engage with new people, ideas, and possibilities. Labour understands that universities are immensely valuable for our individual and collective prosperity. We understand that universities empower individuals to shape their own lives. They enlighten students with new perspectives and lenses through which to see the world. They widen their outlook and enrich their experiences. They help them develop their skills and knowledge. Their creativity and critical thinking. Their confidence and resilience.

We appreciate that universities also benefit society as a whole. That they create a prosperous and competitive economy. They produce a highly skilled and innovative workforce. They drive forward research and innovation that can help solve our most pressing problems.

We have seen this in action during the pandemic. UK universities have trained doctors and nurses who saved lives every day. Researchers that helped develop a Covid vaccine. Or the scientists at Bangor university who studied water waste in order to provide an early warning notification of community coronavirus infection levels.

We understand that universities also enrich our culture and society. They help us interpret and understand our world. They help us analyse our past and imagine our future. They help us express ourselves powerfully and communicate effectively.

We have seen this in action in our creative industries, which are thriving thanks to the talent and skills of our university graduates. The UK creative industry produces award-winning films, books, music, games, and art that entertain and inspire millions of people around the world. It is an industry whose exports were worth £17.9 billion in 2019. This is one of countless industries where UK universities are driving our economy.

We also understand that universities are immensely valuable to the communities in towns and cities across the UK. They collaborate with post-16 and further education colleges, with employers and researchers in private and public sectors alike, with councils and with companies. They provide opportunities to local businesses and local young people, driving forward access and innovation.

Universities are invaluable to our regions, our communities, our economy, and our future. Government must realise that and support them. To help this sector thrive, we need to listen, to negotiate, to collaborate.

I recognise the value of this sector. But I also see the challenges facing it. Challenges such as the demographic boom, that will see increased numbers of eighteen-year-olds applying for universities over the next decade. Challenges such as a politicised regulator. A regulator that lacks both the respect and the vision it needs to be effective. That does little to support the interests of students or support the development of universities. That presents informational burdens and presents barriers rather than enabling innovation and collaboration in the sector.

The government must seek a reset of this relationship, to ensure that smaller education providers, with their flexibility, diverse range of provision and courses that span the tertiary education sector, are not burdened.

Other than as a target of their divisive ideology, I fear that for too long the higher education sector has been ignored. Since 2010, other than David Willetts, who served as Minister for four years providing some stability, the sector has borne the brunt of the turbulent and tumultuous guidance of seven different ministers for higher education. It often seems as though the Conservative government is deliberately trying to damage the sector. Picking political fights, not engaging with the issues the sector faces, or the people working in the sector to hear their ideas. I fear they don’t have any appreciation of the damage they are doing. You don’t have to travel far to know of the reputational impact this is having on the whole sector, including the standing of British universities abroad. I think many would say that the government have undervalued and undermined the higher education sector for too long. They would say that, time and time again, the Conservatives have used higher education as a political football rather than a public good. That they have not offered long-term solutions, but rather exploited or ignored the issues that the sector faces.

Many see this in their regressive changes that they have made to student tuition fees. Changes that impose an unfair burden on graduates. That will disadvantage young graduates at the start of their working lives and discourage older learners from retraining or upskilling. It is wrong and unsustainable to put these burdens on the next generation of nurses, teachers, social workers, engineers, designers, and researchers.

For too long, recent Conservative governments have chosen not to address the issue of sustainability in university funding. They have ignored the increasing number of 18-year-olds entering universities in the next decade, leading to greater demand and increased applications in the years ahead. They have disregarded the importance of international students and the income and value they bring to universities. It is because of this that universities are now seeing a growing funding crisis. A crisis which creates tensions in every university workplace, which you will know better than I do, and which the government is running from rather than tackling

When you ignore the pressing issues facing a sector or a country, and instead choose to pick political fights and detract from the big issues, those issues don’t go away. We also see this in the cost-of-living crisis that sees so many people up and down the country struggle to pay their mortgages, rent, and bills. A crisis that sees working people struggle to keep their homes warm in the winter. I fear that the current government is afraid to address these because they have no solution. They lack ideas so instead pick political fights and stoke division. We can see this with their attitude to free speech on campuses. We told them that creating antagonistic legislation, and failing to work with the sector to create a constructive positive approach to free speech would end badly, and create a divided culture in universities. Now it is becoming increasingly clear that their simplistic outlook is, in fact, too simple. That free speech has its limits, but instead of calling for careful consideration of this problem, they continue to antagonise and argue. It is essential that government and universities work together to ensure the sector’s success. Unfortunately, the current government has shown a lack of interest in collaborating with universities, staff at every level, and students. The Conservatives’ minimum service legislation is a prime example of their unwillingness to listen to the people who work within universities and the students who study there. It is an attempt to ignore an issue away, rather than address how people are feeling within the sector and work towards a solution. This is all the more important for smaller tertiary education providers, with more flexible learning and smaller margins. These providers must be considered and supported, without having to compromise on their specialist, flexible, innovative ways of teaching.

I have visited many providers in the tertiary education sector and talked to various stakeholders in the sector, listening to vice chancellors, student and staff at every level and in every role, at institutions in towns and cities right across our country. I and my party are here to listen to the issues that face the tertiary sector, we want to develop strategies and policies that address these issues head on. We want to create a thriving higher education sector in Britain. I believe that this is reflected in Labour’s missions. Keir Starmer has set out these missions that we will pursue in government missions that represent not only our values but also our priorities. Raising growth. Reducing crime. Building an NHS that is fit for the future. Making Britain a clean energy superpower. And – breaking down the barriers to opportunity. 

Labour understands the value of higher education – as a social force and an economic force. Labour recognises the role of universities in these five missions, as a public good that contributes to an economically successful, technologically advanced, cultured, and cohesive society. We recognise tertiary sector providers as anchor institutions and, at their very best, are civic actors, working with partners across local and regional communities to respond to the needs of that place. This is why we welcome the work of the Civic University Network to establish a peer-review learning to support and expand the work of universities in responding to the needs of their local community. It is also why we welcome and will encourage strong partnerships between business and tertiary education providers.

Labour’s Start-Ups review emphasised the role of universities in driving innovation, evaluating what works and what doesn’t, exploring options on founder-track agreements, and spreading and embedding the culture, so strong already in so many British universities, of turning ideas into innovation and innovation into reality. Labour will review the way that the whole landscape of tertiary education works, and how the Lifelong Learning Entitlement can provide opportunity, through further and higher education systems. That high quality learning should be accessible to everyone, at whatever stage of life, in a variety of forms.

I am particularly interested in what the Welsh government is now doing. The Welsh Commission for Tertiary Education and Research seeks to facilitate collaboration, allowing students greater flexibility moving between institutions and courses. When it comes to delivering a more highly skilled workforce, we believe that our proposal of a new skills body, Skills England, by holding a list of accredited non-apprenticeship routes, that employers will be able to spend the Growth and Skills Levy on, will give young people access to a whole host of new opportunities.  

We will also encourage a reset in the regulatory relationship with higher education providers. A reset that enables collaboration between the universities and the regulator, for a process that emphasises quality enhancement, that considers and supports the diversity between providers.

Collaboration is key to the success of the higher education sector. A Labour government would be committed to working with universities, academics, students, and staff to ensure that the sector thrives. We believe that by engaging with the sector on the basis of mutual understanding, we can unlock new avenues of innovation and drive economic growth. We will work together to build a brighter future for all.

Let me end by saying – Labour believes that the value of government should be a force for good. A force that can help transform the sector and enable it to contribute to the positive transformation of society. This is how we can build a better future for everyone. For students, for staff, for local communities and regions, and for businesses. A future that is fair, prosperous, and sustainable.

And a future that really could be powered by higher education.


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