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06 December 2019

The party manifestos lack vision on universities

Charles Clarke

CHARLES CLARKE: Given the political toxicity of higher education, the 2019 manifestos appear to duck the big issues

Students at university

The Policy Institute is producing a series of comment pieces analysing election manifesto pledges from the different parties across a range of policy areas. Read the full series here

The 2019 general election manifestos reveal how far universities still have to go in convincing the major political parties of the great contribution they can make to addressing the UK’s biggest challenges.

The plans put forward by the parties for the next five years include very little on the role of universities in shaping effective policy- and decision-making. This reveals a significant lack of confidence which combines with a dangerous complacency within the sector. 

One exception is in the field of immigration control, where universities have for almost a decade been campaigning to remove, or at least reduce, the visa restrictions which the targets of the Cameron and May governments had imposed. These inhibited overseas study in the UK and sharply restricted the ability of researchers and other academic staff to work in Britain, which led to both educational and financial disadvantages for universities.

The Conservative manifesto has now removed the unachievable Cameron/May targets, so that the inclusion of students in the immigration measurements is less toxic. It states: “There will be fewer lower-skilled migrants and overall numbers will come down” and proposes a new “student visa which will help universities attract talented young people and allow those students to stay on to apply for work here after they graduate.”

The Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos maintain their opposition to such immigration controls. As a result, it seems that an important strategic goal for UK universities has been achieved, in principle at least.

Universities can take less pleasure in the other big-picture issue of Brexit. The Conservatives’ pledge to “Get Brexit done”, and the assumption that that will happen, makes no reference whatsoever to the Horizon EU research programmes, which are of such significance for UK universities. Labour and the Liberal Democrats pledge continued participation in EU funding programmes.

There is little mention of the wider economic and social role of universities, though all parties commit to better systems of skill development and highlight the role of universities for innovation in the economy. The Conservatives focus on “life sciences, clean energy, space, design, computing, robotics and artificial intelligence”. The Liberal Democrats propose to “increase the Strength in Places Fund, to boost research and development outside the ‘golden triangle’ of Oxford-Cambridge-London”, and to encourage links between “businesses and universities with particular specialisations”.

The Conservatives make a welcome link, though without detail, between universities and the prosperity of local towns and communities: “we will work with local universities to do more for the education health and prosperity of their local area”. They will also ”strengthen universities’ and colleges’ civic role”.

The manifestos contain some other rather random thoughts. Important Labour commitments are to “reverse the decline of part-time learning” and to “introduce post-qualification admissions in higher education” – ie to offer students places after they receive A-level results. They also pledge to “work with universities to ensure contextual admissions are used across the system”. The Conservatives also intend to “improve the applications and offer system”, and want to “tackle the problem of grade inflation and low-quality courses” and to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities”. All parties commit to widening participation and access.

But all of it without detail or any actual proposals of how to get there.

The Liberal Democrats will “require universities to make mental health services accessible to their students, and introduce a Student Mental Health Charter.”

Over the last 25 years the main bone of political contention around universities has been the system of student finance, with the related issue of fair access. The contention meant that the Conservatives before 1997 and Labour before 2010 set up commissions, headed by Ron Dearing and then John Browne, which took the issue out of general-election politics and reported shortly afterwards. The 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge to abolish fees became a recurring source of angst for their party. Theresa May believed that Labour’s 2017 pledge to abolish fees was a big reason for the party’s better-than-expected performance. And so she set up the Augur review, which reported last May with some important recommendations.

Given the political toxicity of this issue, the 2019 manifestos appear to duck the big challenges. The Conservatives will consider the Augur Review’s “thoughtful recommendations” “carefully” and will “look at the interest rates on loan repayments with a view to reducing the burden of debt on students.” The only commitment they give is to a £5,000-£8,000 maintenance grant for student nurses.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats both state that they will support student nurses and health professionals. But they also say that they will reintroduce maintenance grants, more widely, for the poorest students and bring back Education Maintenance Allowances in post-16 education

Labour will “abolish tuition fees” and provide “free lifelong learning” – but without saying where the money will come from or specifying which students will be affected. The Liberal Democrats will review the whole system and commit to “no more retrospective raising of interest rates or selling off loans to private companies”.

A big potential change is Labour’s commitment to “fundamentally rethink the assessment of research and teaching quality, and develop a new funding formula for higher education that ensures all public HE institutions have adequate funding for teaching and research.” And there is significance in Labour’s commitment to “transform the Office for Students from a market regulator to a body of the National Education Service, acting in the public interest” and the Liberal Democrats’ promise to “raise standards in universities by strengthening the Office for Students, to make sure all students receive a high-quality education.” However, no detail is offered in these critical issues about university independence and vitality.

These woolly and imprecise commitments from Labour and the Lib Dems, together with the Conservatives’ avoidance of the issues raised in the Augur Review, really do sum up the weaknesses of this group of manifestos.

The UK’s university sector is one of the most successful in the world and at the same time faces huge challenges. Neither the political parties vying for electoral success with these manifestos, nor the university sector itself, are putting forward a clear vision of the role that universities can and should play in enabling our societies to meet the enormous challenges of our time.

Charles Clarke was Secretary of State for Education and Skills from 2002 to 2005 and then Home Secretary until 2006.

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