Universities will be prevented from going bust under Labour by giving regulator the Office for Students (OfS) powers to make emergency loans to avoid “disorderly failure” at institutions.
Speaking at the University and College Union (UCU) annual conference on Saturday, Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, announced plans to take a tougher line on vice-chancellors’ pay.
It comes amid concerns about financial difficulties at universities, with reports that at least three are on the brink of bankruptcy.
Some are having to make cuts to staff amid multimillion-pound budget deficits, with fears that a no-deal Brexit and a cut to tuition fees could leave them more vulnerable.
The OfS has said previously that it would not bail out financially unsustainable universities.
Speaking in Manchester, Ms Rayner said: “The Tories have unleashed a failed free market experiment, which is now coming home to roost with potentially disastrous consequences.
“The Tories’ attitude to our services goes to the very heart of their ideology.
“Of a system where market logic is imposed on public goods; where the forces of competition run rampant at the expense of students, staff, and communities.”
Her comments come after universities minister Chris Skidmore told MPs this week that some providers may “exit the market altogether as a result of strong competition” and that regulation reforms did not equate to “propping up” any failing institution.
Ms Rayner said: “Ministers cannot simply bury their heads in the sand when faced with what it would mean for even one of these vital institutions to be lost.
“Students would be left with immense uncertainty about their futures.”
Under Labour, the regulator would ban vice-chancellors from sitting on the committees that set their own pay and universities would be required to implement a 20:1 pay ratio between the highest- and lowest-paid members of staff in universities.
It comes after figures from the OfS this week revealed that more than three-quarters of university bosses with six-figure salaries were given inflation-busting pay rises last year.
Ms Rayner has pledged to improve the diversity of staff in universities, with the reformed regulator given specific powers to tackle inequality across the sector.
There are only 25 black female professors in the UK – which make up just 0.1 per cent of all professors, compared to white men who represent nearly two-thirds of professors.
“Like much of our establishment, our universities are too male, pale and stale and do not represent the communities that they serve and modern Britain,” the shadow education secretary said.
A Department for Education spokesperson said the OfS was set up “to champion the interests of students, promote choice and ensure that higher education delivers value for money”.
The spokesperson continued: “We have given it strong regulatory powers to take action where it deems necessary, including financial penalties and even deregistration.
“The OfS has already made a significant impact on the sector even though the OfS is not yet at full strength, with some of its powers due to come into force later this year.”
Responding to Labour’s comments, Mr Skidmore said: “Universities know they can’t trust Corbyn as his plans would crash the economy, mean less investment in our higher education, compromising its world-class quality.
“I’ve yet to find a vice-chancellor who supports Labour’s plans to damage the sector and roll back progress that has been made in recent years.
“Under the Conservatives there are more 18-year-olds in higher education than ever before – including more students from disadvantaged backgrounds being the first in their family to go to university.”
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