Reps' Monthly Higher Education Update
This is a monthly update for our Reps on what’s going on in the Higher Education sector. With so many political commentators seeing a general election on the horizon, this month’s edition considers the education policies of the main political parties, some of which have been presented at this year’s party conferences. This edition comes out a little late so that we can look at the policies of the Conservative Party, whose conference lasts until Wednesday 2nd October.
At their conference in Bournemouth in September, the Liberal Democrats criticised what they believe to be a “grossly underfunded” system of further education and adult education. They noted that education helps adults to improve their social and cultural capital – in other words, it brings more opportunities to participate in cultural events, meet new people, try new things and learn more skills.
Delegates debated a motion on the standard of education in the UK. One interesting development was a focus on “lifelong learning” which would involve the government giving each English citizen a small sum of money to go toward their education when they reach the ages of 25, 40 and 50. You might also receive some money if you experience an extraordinary life event to go toward your education or retraining. This money would be paid to a Personal Education and Skills Account.
The Liberal Democrats also proposed a bus discount count for citizens aged between 16 and 21. This would benefit many undergraduate students who commute to their universities or take buses to other events in their lives.
The Labour Party made headlines with its proposal to abolish private schools, described as “most radical education policy for generations”. In the UK, there are around 2,500 schools that privately educate between six and seven per cent of the country’s schoolchildren; less than 4% of Coventry University students attended private school. The Labour Party plans to remove the charitable status of private schools. Then the Party would add VAT to the fees that the parents of private schoolchildren pay. Eventually, all private schools would be taken into the state education system.
At the conference, Angela Rayner, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, reiterated the party’s commitment to abolishing tuition fees for university education as well as removing fees for further and adult education. She added that the party will soon release a “Lifelong Learning Commission” will go into Labour’s future education policies in more detail.
In its 2017 election manifesto, the Conservative Party promised to compel universities that want to charge the highest tuition fees (£9,250 a year) to be involved in the establishment of free schools and academies. Reducing the highest tuition fees that universities can charge was a suggestion in the report into post-education commissioned by Theresa May, which was published earlier this year. Philip Augar suggested that fees should come down to £7,500 a year. (He also thought that the maintenance grant should return, something that the Opposition parties want.) But the Prime Minister who commissioned Philip Augar’s report is no longer in office; it is suspected that her successor, Boris Johnson, will not pay much attention to Augar’s ideas.
The Conservatives will commit resources to technical and vocational education, the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, announced at his party’s conference, continuing another pledge in their 2017 manifesto. Williamson said that the party would continue its programme of launching institutes of technology “every major city in England”.
Unless there is a major shakeup in a sudden general election, university students in England will continue to pay tuition fees of up to £9,250 a year. (International students will pay more but how much more post-Brexit is uncertain.) As things stand, the Conservatives have no plans to do away with the fees, but the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats are critical of the fees. But each party has a history of coming to very different conclusions about how much, if anything, students should pay for a university education. Earlier this year, the Higher Education Policy Institute took a look at how the parties’ opinions toward tuition fees have changed over time. You can read its findings here.
What do universities think? If tuition fees were cut to the levels recommended by Philip Augar, Universities UK – the national body that represents universities in the UK – claims that universities would have to cut their funding for many courses and services. This would have a knock-on effect on the number and diversity of courses available to students, as well as limiting the number of skilled graduates that employers want. Unless the government made up the shortfall, Universities UK states that students would be worse off if fees were cut.
Meanwhile, some universities and their vice-chancellors would prefer it if yearly tuition fees were raised. As the Liberal Democrats are toying with a graduate tax and the Labour Party wants to do away with fees altogether, the party most likely to carry this out would be the Conservative Party. If polling is accurate (which, given the polls for the last election, is unlikely), it would be the Conservatives who would win a snap election.
HE news in brief
Away from the party conferences, what else has been happening in the higher education sector? Here are some brief updates:
- the University of Warwick has joined other universities, such as Sussex, Glasgow, Plymouth and Newcastle, in declaring a climate emergency. More universities are under pressure to declare an emergency – will Coventry University join them?
- Queen Mary University of London has launched a new degree in social change. Students enrolled on the course collaborate with a broad range of charities to learn about ethical practices, representation and making a positive difference to the community.
- 80% of universities are worried about a no-deal Brexit, according to a survey of 75 universities by Universities UK – but 100% of universities surveyed say that they’ve made preparations for it
- an overdue book has been returned to the library at Cambridge University... sixty years after it was borrowed!