Reps' Higher Education Update: General Election Special
This is a special update for Reps. The general election is just a few days away, so the Reps Team has taken a look at the higher education policies of the major political parties. Make sure you cast your vote on Thursday 12th of December!
The Conservatives were in government at the time that the general election was called. There has been a Conservative government since 2015, coming after a Conservative-led coalition with the Liberal Democrats between 2010 and 2015. An election victory would lengthen Conservative time in office to fourteen years, approaching the seventeen years of Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher and John Major from 1979 to 1997.
In its election manifesto, the Conservatives praise Britain’s universities, recognising their world-leading status and the “excellent job” they do “generating many of the skills that our economy needs, producing globally renowned scientists, entrepreneurs and creators, and enabling millions of people to fulfil their potential.” “We have more world-class universities than anywhere in Europe,” the manifesto adds.
The Conservatives refer to the Augar Review – something that our Senior Course Reps will remember from their training! – and its “thoughtful recommendations” on tuition fees, funding, apprenticeships and adult learning “and we will consider them carefully.”
The Conservatives also promise to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech.”
The nod to the Augar Review is interesting: until the release of the manifesto, we did not know if the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, agreed with the recommendations of a review commissioned by the previous Prime Minister, Theresa May. It’s not quite a full-throated endorsement of Philip Augar’s ideas, but it shows that a future Conservative government would not dismiss the Augar Review out of hand.
Students interested in politics will note the Conservatives’ pledge to improve academic freedom. Presumably these pledges have been informed by the various moments on British campuses in which controversial speakers have been invited to campus. Some speakers’ talks are overshadowed by protests; other speakers’ talks are cancelled due to complaints. Many speakers believe that this is an impingement on the free speech and a sign that British universities are no longer fostering healthy academic debate. Other commentators say that the so-called “free speech crisis” on campus does not exist.
The campus censorship / free speech debate has been rumbling along for several years. The Conservatives have made some small contributions to it. In 2018, the Minister for Universities, Sam Gyimah, announced a government policy on reducing censorship on campus grounds. (Gyimah would later defect to the Liberal Democrats.) But besides this, the Conservatives have been mainly concerned with how the higher education sector will be funded. The free speech debate is more of interest to minority parties such as the Brexit Party.
The Labour Party was the largest party of opposition at the time that the general election was called. Labour has not been in government since its election defeat in 2010. If Jeremy Corbyn were to become Prime Minister this year, it would be about twelve years since Labour was in office.
The Labour Party has big plans for reorganising the higher education sector. Many reforms would coincide with the creation of a National Education Service under a Labour government. The Office for Students, the independent regulator, would be absorbed into this service.
The party’s manifesto is hugely critical of the Conservatives’ approach to universities, writing that they were “left at the mercy of market forces, while top salaries soar and students pay more for less”. It promises to “end the failed free-market experiment in higher education”.
If the Labour Party were elected on the 12th of December, tuition fees would be ended, perhaps as soon as the day after the election! Labour’s team are also keen to examine the existence of student debt, including the possibility of cancelling debt – at huge potential expense of the state.
Like other opposition parties, the Labour Party also favours the return of maintenance grants, this time for students from the poorest economic backgrounds.
The Labour Party’s policies would mean a drastic change from the status quo. Many lecturers, particularly who were recently on strike, would welcome the changes. However, there is a huge price tag attached to the Labour Party’s policy on doing away with tuition fees: £8 billion a year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Getting rid of student debt would increase that cost by several more billions. A Labour government would either have to borrow plenty of money to cover the costs or increase taxation.
Universities would be keen to know how their funding would be prepared if a Labour government abolished tuition fees for students. Most universities’ income comes from the tuition fees paid by students, both locally and internationally. If tuition fees were reduced, universities’ income would be too; so if tuition fees were scrapped entirely, universities would find have to make huge adjustments. This could mean fewer lecturers are employed, facilities are not kept in good order, or fewer students are admitted to university because universities can’t afford to have them there!
The Liberal Democrats has traditionally been seen as the third major party in British politics, though at the time that the House of Commons voted for a snap election, it was the fourth-largest political party (behind the Scottish National Party). The Liberal Democrats were in office in coalition with the Conservative Party from 2010 to 2015. Besides this, it has never been in government.
The Liberal Democrat manifesto describes British universities as “examples of excellence throughout the world” that stand to lose out if Brexit happens. The manifesto resolves to “stop” Brexit, letting the university sector “continue to rely on international collaboration” and “attract leading academics from around the world.”
The manifesto pledges to reverse Brexit to protect universities; improve universities’ standards “by strengthening the Office for Students,” the regulatory body; and launch a “Student Mental Health Charter” to advance mental health support provision on campuses. While the Labour Party commits to abolishing tuition fees, the Liberal Democrats would hold a review to assess the current state of higher education before putting forward policies on whether tuition fees should go down (or up!).
Just as the Conservatives like to tie so much to “getting Brexit done,” the Liberal Democrats say that their plans depend on stopping Brexit. Seeing Brexit through would damage the international reputation of our universities and British scholars’ ability to work with European scholars. But if you take the references to Brexit out of the Liberal Democrats’ higher education policies, there isn’t much here that will rock the boat.
In some areas, the manifesto puts forward some concrete ideas. For example, while many politicians acknowledge a mental health crisis on several UK campuses, the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto puts forward a policy that would require universities to provide appropriate support.
There are other some moments in the Liberal Democrat manifesto that need more explanation. “Strengthening the Office for Students,” for example, is not explained in any more detail. What new powers would the Office for Students get?
Remember to vote!
Don't forget to vote in the general election on Thursday 12th December. If you're registered to vote in Coventry but you aren't sure of your nearest polling station, check your polling card or visit the Coventry Council website (here).
This special bulletin looks at the higher education policies of the main three political parties. There are other political parties standing for office, so be sure to browse the policies of each one. In the three constituencies in Coventry (Coventry North East, Coventry North West and Coventry South), there are candidates from the Brexit Party, the Conservative and Unionist Party, the Green Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats standing, alongside one independent candidate in Coventry South.
Images: Andrew Parsons / i-Images, Flickr; Tara Rutledge; and the Liberal Democrats, Flickr.