Perhaps the most striking aspect of the main parties’ stance on higher education in the current general election campaign is how little any of them say about it. In fact, a glance at their manifestos reveals precisely no proposals or policy announcements of note.
Perhaps HE isn’t a vote winner or of great interest to the populace at a general election, precisely, in fact, what critics of Ed Miliband’s policy of using pension tax relief money to fund lower student loans had to say.
Of course, no news isn’t good news, because if there is one thing we know, it’s that none of the parties will refrain from unannounced policy changes once in power. The lifting of the student number cap is an example of that – not necessarily unwelcome but a change with unpredictable consequences that have to be worked through. Interestingly, the Conservative manifesto talks of this as something they will do in office as opposed to something that has already been done. However, under the Conservatives, presumably it is here to stay.
The Liberal Democrats promise a review of university funding during the next parliament. In reality, any party or coalition in power after the general election other than as a stop gap government will surely instigate a review of student funding, the outcome of which may be back to the future. The Labour party has gone part way with its promise to top up its proposed reduction in tuition fees by direct grant to universities.
It remains to be seen whether that gap is truly fully funded – although the manifesto promises universities that it is – and whether the full funding comes with strings attached. We know that there are many sticks and carrots that can be used to influence behaviour. The Labour party says that one of its priorities is the introduction of technical degrees.
Perhaps the policy areas that promise the greatest impact on HE are outside of education, namely immigration policy and the UK’s future in the EU. Most observers note that the UK has fallen behind in its popularity for non-EU overseas students, particularly from the Indian subcontinent, and that perceptions of how amenable the UK is to student immigration play a large role. None of the parties intends to stifle the genuine student wishing to attend a mainstream institution, fully funded and with the requisite qualifications including language skills. But that is couched in language that talks of cracking down on low-skill migration and stopping abuses of the system.
Quite how the prospect of the UK’s departure from the EU will affect universities, or the UK’s actual departure, is too difficult to predict in this short piece, although it doesn’t feel positive unless EU students can be persuaded by the quality of the education on offer to pay the tuition fees demanded of non-EU migrants. It doesn’t feel likely. Like so much of the UK being part of the EU, unraveling it will take years and bring about consequences that no one has even started to grapple with. In the meantime, the danger is to the UK’s brand.
So if there is one thing we know, it is that whilst the manifestos are short on words regarding HE, the reality after May 2015 will be quite different. The financing of the sector is generally regarded as being unsustainable in the long term such is the demand for the funding needed to meet students’ aspirations (deliberately and rightly emboldened), and to renew infrastructure and grow in a competitive market. The temptation to look at university funding in a world where every party has promised to clear the on-going deficit but continues to make promises to spend still more, means that no area with loose change will go untapped, and perhaps this time round, the short term fixers will look at the HE sector.
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