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Corbyn’s National Education Service will not be won without a fight

MarsdenThe issue of tuition fees has been thrown into the spotlight since party conference, after comments made by the new Higher Education, Further Education and Skills shadow minister and MP for Blackpool South, Gordon Marsden, that “nothing is ruled in, nothing is ruled out” on university funding.

I attended the fringe meeting, and while it is a shame that so many other important educational issues do not make the headlines, such as the Tories’ destructive proposals for a ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ or the lack of funding for postgraduates, as usual it is fees which make the news.

The Times Higher Education broke the news, shortly followed by the Guardian‘s education correspondent and then the story became distorted by the Financial Times, who ran the headline, “Corbyn shelves proposal to scrap tuition fees.”

What Marsden had actually said was that the tuition fees pledge, like everything else in Corbyn’s campaign manifesto, would have to go through a policy-making process within the party itself, saying, there would be “a deep process of thought – and an open process of thought – both with our own members and with outside organisations”.

Jeremy Corbyn’s education policy during the leadership election was in fact much more varied and profound than, ‘scrap fees’, and was in fact a pledge to introduce lifelong learning as a ‘National Education Service’. Writing for LabourList, Corbyn said:

Fifty years ago, the Labour government of Harold Wilson sought to address this problem for its time, and under Jennie Lee in 1965 started the work to establish the Open University – one of the most under-rated achievements of Labour in government.

Fifty years on, it is time to start putting the case for investment in learning from cradle to grave. A National Education Service would be every bit as vital and as free at the point of use as our NHS, and should be delivered by the end of the next Parliament.

In addition to the abolition of tuition fees, Corbyn’s National Education Service proposal included:

  • The restoration of maintenance grants
  • Investing in early years education
  • Universal childcare
  • Reversing the cuts to the adult skills budget and expanding it into a lifelong learning service
  • Equalisation of the minimum wage rate, including for apprentices
  • Colleges working in partnership with employers to mutually accredit apprenticeships and courses that offer high quality transferable skills.
  • Councils and government agencies using public procurement contracts to guarantee good apprenticeships.

This was all to be funded by a modest rise in corporation tax, which would still leave the UK with the lowest corporation tax in the G7. Since businesses are among the principle beneficiaries of a highly-skilled and well-educated workforce, they should pay up and fund these services.

What will now ensue is a power struggle within the Labour Party between those who support the principle of free education as a public service, and those who oppose it. In favour are likely to be the vast majority of party activists, as even before the Corbyn-inspired membership surge, free higher education funded by general taxation was more popular among activists than either fees or a graduate tax, with 45% of the party in favour. I would suspect that is now an overwhelming majority. Also in favour will be Labour’s affiliated unions, many of whom back free higher education where they have policy on it, and the Socialist Educational Association, which is affiliated to Labour and has policy too.

The drive for Labour to adopt this National Education Service proposal as policy must come from the grassroots however. The policy must be won CLP-by-CLP, with a debate and a battle at every level of the party from branches, to CLPs, to regional conference, to the National Policy Forum and at party conference. Another key area will be Labour Students and Young Labour, the former of which actually has a policy of £6,000 a year tuition fees, although many of its activists claim they prefer a graduate tax as the most ‘progressive’ option.

Crucial to this will be the support of Labour’s largest unions, who wield significant power at party conference due to the weight of their votes and their seats on the Conference Arrangements Committee. Assurances must be sought from the unions by activists that not only will they vote to allow a debate on the National Education Service to take place, but that they will prioritise a motion on the subject, and they will vote in favour.

What is required is to connect the broader student movement, the regular demonstrations for free education such as the NUS-sponsored march on November 4th, the local anticuts groups and free education campaigns, with sympathetic minds in CLPs, University Labour Clubs, and Young Labour groups. The 50,000 young people who have joined the party since the General Election will include those who marched against £9,000 fees in 2010, and those like myself who are now paying them. They must continue to organise to win the wider public around to free education while pushing the case through the party’s structures.

Activists in the Labour Campaign for Free Education, which I helped found, are organised and ready to convince the sceptics in the party that a moderate rise in taxes on corporations is a small price to pay for a National Education Service and lifelong learning, which would prove popular with the public, especially young people, and leave a genuine legacy for Labour in government.


  1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    Hi Everyone

    Just a reminder about the IT assessment courses tomorrow morning 10 – 12 drop in and be assessed so we can see what level people will need. If we have low attendance we will not be able to offer these courses so if you can make it please come along.


    Dear XXXXi,

    I’ve given this some thought and to honest, and without being rude, I’m having considerable difficulty imagining how any of this might be of any conceivable use to me, although were you to run a refresher on spread sheets that might be of interest, but even then I’m not really a fan of on-line learning.

    So I’ll be giving this miss today, but thank you for the opportunity.

    I genuinely wish that I could be more positive about this as I appreciate that this is an important issue to you; but as with all the other, “training,” I been offered through various routes since becoming unemployed I think this kind of thing is too often of far more value to the people being employed to provide it, than it is to people receiving it, although it’s probably been useful, (if still more in principle than in practice,) to be able to tick a few boxes on my CV nonetheless,

    Anyway as always thanks you for you time and support,



  2. Mervyn Hyde says:

    Isn’t it funny how the right argue that if they are sanctioned for going against party policy on issues such as education, we are regarded as bullies, but when they stand in the way of the whole membership on progressive policies such as Jeremy is outlining, it is their natural right.

    We need to move swiftly and remind these dictators what the meaning of democracy is.

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      I along with many other people paid my £3 to vote for JC, (and put up his poster to the apparent approval of most of our neighbors,) but my own experiences since have really not been positive or encouraging.

      Before the election our local CLP went into conclave at our local Roman Catholic Church, (full party members only thank you very much,) and then they quietly decided among themselves who we were all going to vote for and when the white smoke came out of chimney so to speak, the lucky winner of their endorsement was Andy Burnham.

      Not someone I’d ever want to support, in fact one of the main reasons I actually voted was to stop him, Cooper or Kendell becoming Labor party leader.

      but I somewhat get the impression from my very slight and limited contact with our CLP that they wish we’d, (those of us who support JC,) just go away now, (but thank you for your interest,) and also a certain confidence both cynical and wry, that if they continue to ignore us we’ll all simply disappear back into the woodwork where we belong; after all that has always worked for them in the past.

      The various windbags who generally contribute to Left Futures, (with the odd genuinely interesting and honorable exceptions,) always seem far more interested where Labor have been, (whilst always completely ignoring the real extent of Labor’s many failures,) than in moving the debate forward inclusively in any useful,or productive direction.

      If we want your opinion, which frankly seems unlikely; we’ll let you know what it is, as the saying goes.

      So, “democratic socialists,” probably not so much nor any indication of it becoming so any time soon.

      1. James Kemp says:

        >>The various windbags who generally contribute to Left Futures, (with the odd genuinely interesting and honorable exceptions,) always seem far more interested where Labor have been, (whilst always completely ignoring the real extent of Labor’s many failures,) than in moving the debate forward inclusively in any useful,or productive direction.

        So why are you hear if you hate the site so much and we have nothing to say? Yes I hate the mess New labour made of everything especially disability policy see WCA at least Jeremy seams to want to Listen not just to the wonks at CLP. The Spads and other associated so called experts!

        Who are mostly plastic Tory and no change here for you oiks. So who is wasting there time if your CLP is so bad arrange a meeting with other right thinking people and fight for affiliation with the party the more we go along with the old guard try and appease and understand doesn’t work.

        Revolution and grand change is in the air and we hope and prey to stay. I say if your not willing to listen to the views of the supporters and be honest then go join the Tory party they love that.
        It’s time to change the structure of CLP and get the real change going Labour needs to survive and become the party we deserve.

        1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

          Essentially that’s just more of the usual tired tired and tedious sophistry that I and ,any other people are complaining about, i we don’t like way the party we voted for s being or the people who are running it we should start our own political party and stop pestering you.

          Thank you for your wisdom and insight.

          I’m reminded of that old saying almost, a cliché that, “if your not part of the solution, your part of the problem,” and that people like you will always have this kind of cheap cop out for any criticism.

          1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

            In fact you sound exactly like my CLP.

            This is same comment but with a few corrections.

            Essentially that’s just more of the usual tired, tired, tired and tedious sophistry that I and many other people commenting here are complaining about; what you’re saying is if we don’t like way the party we voted for is being or the people who are running it we should start our own political party instead and stop pestering you.

            Thank you for your wisdom and insight.

            I’m reminded of that old saying, almost a cliché that, “if your not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” and that people like you will always have this kind of cheap cop out for any criticism.

          2. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

            In fact I’d go even further, it’s become very evident to many people, (not just to me,) that people like hate people like me, (and hate also any prospect of change,) even more than you hate the Tories who are current tearing this country apart.

            Your obvious inability to distinguish between your friends and your enemies or to countenance any criticism is something that has always been and which will continue to be, the downfall of the UK Labour party.

            So good luck with all that.

  3. Bazza says:

    Excellent main post and yes we need a National Education Service with Lifelong Learning and which is free, and yes we to build a society (and World) of critical thinkers.
    We also need to start in schools where the kids are over-tested and we should get rid of exams.
    Exams are elaborate memory tests and you are judged for life over 1/2 hours when you may not feel well, may be distracted thinking about your parents arguing over money, or you just may not like this competition, and that is what exams are – competition – to make millions of kids within capitalism feel intelligent and talented, and millions more feel failures (which tragically can stay with some people for life).
    Capitalism needs a Wheat and a Chaff!
    In course assessment gives you a much better picture of a young human beings’ skills, talents, creativity and potential.
    And yes we need free university education.
    I think if we are going to diversify some arms employment say to make free solar panels for the poor in poor countries in the World to give them free energy then we could throw in free iPads and they can do MOOCS ( massive open on-line courses) to free themselves from poverty through education. A useful use of he aid budget!
    Every democratic socialist should also read Paulo Freire!

  4. David Pavett says:

    A useful post from James Elliot. I strongly agree that the direction of education policy (and the other main contentious issues) will be determined by activity (or the lack of it) at the base of the Party.

    Yes, we need to see support for Cobyn’s proposal for a National Education Service coming from CLPs around the country. That means that there needs to be discussion about not just student fees but also about reversing the Gove schools revolution in order to bring schools back into the sphere of local government (albeit a local government with enhanced democratic participation).

    The problem though is that we need such a discussion at the base of the Party on a series of other issues (starting from the ones in which Corbyn is in a minority in the Shadow Cabinet). That requires that the discussions are organised and coordinated. For that we need some help from Corbyn, the NEC and possibly the NPF. I am putting a motion to my branch next for the CLP to ask for such a coordinated national debate. I would like to suggest that others do the same.

    It is important that such debates are properly informed (not something Labour has much experience of). This means that the contending viewpoints must all be clearly stated and made easily accessible so that members can make an informed choice. I think that if we do not do this Corbyn will eventually be stifled by the Shadow Cabinet and the PLP more generally and this historic opportunity for a change of direction will be missed.

  5. Bazza says:

    Yes, our strength is Jeremy’s 60% vote and we need to organise, organise, organise!
    And it does mean more of what some may think of as the ‘boring stuff’ like rule changes, resolutions, voting for more of our supporters for the NEC etc. and as delegates to Annual Confereance, and to the new members, attending Conference can be a wondferful experience.
    We need to maintain the momentum and consult members through Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) plus on-line (don’t forget not everyone can make meeting re childcare, caring roles, work commitments etc.)
    It could be quite exciting – we could have simply written and clear and brief policy suggestions on topics (a stimulus-response to generate discussion) sent to CLPs say every 3 months (and on-line and we could also look at having CLP e groups and voting/commenting on-line).
    CLPs could consider holding open public meetings (for Labour supporters or potential supporters) on topics from housing, education, defence, the economy etc.
    Then new ideas and amendments on he topics could be sent for Conference to debate and decide.
    So let ideas, comradely discussion, and democracy flow!

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