Labour’s proposed new National Education Service could impoverish colleges and disadvantage learners, claims Professor Bill Wardle

Jeremy Corbyn’s speech to the Labour conference included a rallying call that should alarm the education community, particularly colleges: the establishment of a National Education Service, offering free college education courses to all.

The watchwords “free, universal and empowering” echo the founding principles of the NHS. Corbyn’s proposal to rebuild society anew has been made against a backdrop of escalating global competitiveness and shifts in the use of technology and its effects on employment. Others have considered this political and economic theorem, including Lord Sainsbury, but Labour’s approach lacks consideration of implementation or consequences.

The Labour Party is in an abstract, even indiscriminate, bidding war, finding a “solution” for colleges along the lines of Angela Rayner’s boast that Labour triumphed over the Conservatives on HE tuition fees.

Colleges ought to be very worried. First, how will we afford free tuition? There could be raids on other budgets, unless new money is created via magic money trees or new taxes. The depletion of school budgets, as has happened in Scotland to fund higher education fees, might be of lesser concern to colleges than the fact that “free to all” might in practice mean “free only to those allocated a place”.

Growth is meaningful only if it is managed, and managed by the professionals

Scottish college education stayed publicly funded but the effect was reduced student numbers. Stark priorities were enforced and there were curriculum and institutional casualties, via forced mergers. Provision shrank away from the spectrum currently imagined by Corbyn and became controlled and confined. Part-time students, and work-based, employer-focussed programmes, disappeared.

Second, free provision is expected to enable all individuals to have the skills to move to higher, technology-focused levels. This is virtuous, but it does raise massive questions about investment, coherence and comparability across the sector. One of the biggest challenges for the NHS is how to achieve consistency across the country.

Will our preoccupation with waiting times for access to surgical services shift to one for access to courses based on higher skills and promising high-value employability? The NHS is a fantastic concept, but shackled with the necessary practicality of coexisting with other forms of separately funded provision.

Colleges have thrived on competition, and the sector is growing, becoming stronger and developing an identity. If it is now expected to receive all-comers and, at the same time, equip them with the skills of the modern knowledge economy, how does it square this with its current role as the perennial bulk-carrier for those who have underachieved at school?

Growth is meaningful only if it is managed, and managed by the professionals. What will worry colleges is how their funding is sourced, the potential reintroduction of an allocation system, and the levels of investment required to reengineer the curriculum.

Over the last 15 years, colleges have taken successful business decisions (and some bad ‘businesses’ have disappeared) and their balance sheets reflect their operational position and related capital investment and borrowing. Uncertainty over funding brings reflexive risk-aversion on the part of colleges and banks. Colleges have developed a sound business model, based on growth rather than neoliberal dogma.

College business plans will be thrown by a centralised system, more so since it is a flawed one. The focus on colleges would need to be accompanied by a new level of rigour regarding school outcomes. The silence on university tuition fees is disappointing and perplexing. In one sense, the raised level of expectation on colleges means that their budgets must be ring-fenced.

While Labour’s new national plan for education has shone a spotlight on colleges, it leaves schools and higher education in the shadows – not to mention apprentices. A truly national perspective would have been holistic but also recognised phases and the obligations on each phase. The speech mixes up expectation and entitlement but without spelling out the curriculum revolution, and the funding structures and investment shifts necessary to give credibility and confidence.

Bill Wardle is from WAW Consulting