I guess it’s fair to say that I’m a bit of nerd for higher education policy and that I have a more than normal level of interest in politics. So what could be more thrilling than a UK General Election where HE policy is on the agenda and where the outcome will lead to significant changes, whatever the final result.
I was asked this week to provide some commentary on what the implications for higher education of the manifestos, launched this week. I attempted to be objective in my contributions, so rather than read the manifestos and then decide which I prefered, I thought I would look out for the areas of policy that can and will have most impact on the sector and evaluate them against that list.
I think there are four areas where party policies would have a major impact on higher education:
1) Tuition Fees: Despite sterling efforts by Vice-Chancellors (but not those on the Board of UniversitiesUK!) to keep this off the agenda for this election, it is here; mainly because the Labour Party have maintained their committment to reduce fees from £9000 to £6000. This is the highest profile area for the parties and the media because it has such resonance with the middle classes, but for Universities it is also acutely important because this is the biggest single source of income. This is challenging for the university sector because we could be facing yet another change to the fees regime at a point when the full consequences of the existing system have not yet been borne out (the first cohort of students under the £9k regime will graduate this Summer, after the General Election!).
In my opinion, the best outcome for Universities would be a period of stability, where the impact of the existing fees regime can be measured objectively, with a modest change that would let the cap increase in line with inflation. It is clear that concerns that the system would deter potential students from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds have been proved false. The number of students from these backgrounds has continued to grow, and at a faster rate of growth than ever before. For someone like me (working class background and the first in my family to go to University), it is particularly frustrating to hear people from a different background bleating on about the fact that fees are a deterrent to students. The facts show that they are not!
2) Research Funding (Science Budget): Yet another area where Vice-Chancellors and Research Councils have been lobbying furiously. The Science Budget has been ringfenced for a number of years now, but only in cash terms. This means that when inflation is taken into account, the level of resource available to Universities has dwindled.
Obviously, the best outcome for Universities would be an increase in the science budget to start to address the huge gap in public funding for research that we see between the UK and our global competitors. A further period of ringfenced funding would be second best.
3) Immigration: In broadest terms, this is not an area of policy that is directly about higher education, but the impact of the policies of both the pre-2010 Labour Government and the Coalition Government over the past 5 years has been quite negative. The impression has been given to overseas students that they may not be welcome in the UK and that the Immigration and VISA system is too complex and hostile for them to take the risk of coming here when other countries are keen to welcome them. So the party policies on “Bogus Colleges”, Tier 4 status and post-study VISAs are critical to the sector.
I heard the other day that the number of students coming to the UK from India has declined by over 50%, at the same time as the number of Indian students studying overseas has been growing steadily. This is the consequence of a hostile approach from the Home Office to student VISAs.
I think the work done over the past few years to clamp down on so called non-traditional “bogus colleges” has been broadly beneficial. I’ve blogged about it before and I think it has brought some welcome scrutiny to a part of the sector that was previously operating behind the scenes. The tightening of the student VISA regime has been hugely costly to University, both to manage the administrative burden and red-tape involved but also the detrimental effect it has had on the numbers of bright and capable students who choose to study in the UK.
An ideal position would be for all the parties to recognise the progress made with the non-traditional providers and to consolidate that work, to recognise the depth of evidence that Universities manage international student recruitment well and with integrity and therefore to commit to reducing the bureaucratic burden on established Universities with a strong track-record. The gold standard would go to any party that committed to take the infinitely sensible step of removing students from the immigration figures altogether.
4) Membership of the European Union: This is the most indirect of all the policy areas. But, a decision to withdraw from the EU would be very bad news for Universities. Universities benefit directly from membership of the EU in four ways.
i) Research Funding, most notably through the Horizon 2020 programme, from the EU is now a significant part of the sector’s income to support our capacity for world-leading research and encouraging collaboration between European centres for excellence.
ii) This, combined with the mobility of staff within the EU means that UK Universities are able to work in partnership, and with minimum hindrance, with the very best universities on the continent. To give a very simplistic example, just imagine the impact on a German department at a UK University if the ability to of staff to ‘role swap’ between Universities, to share research projects and resources were hindered because the ease of access created by membership of the EU were to go.
iii) European students benefit from mobility too, being able to move relatively freely between countries to enrich their education, build language skills and to access EU wide grants and funds.
iv) Although sometimes slow and difficult to negotiate, a number of professions (such as Architecture, Pharmacy, Medicine and Dentistry) have been working together to build mutual recognition of the different education systems and the qualifications held by students. So when, for example, an Architect graduates with a qualification in the UK, they are more likely to get a job and build a global network and reputation because they have relative freedom to work throughout Europe.
To leave the EU would undermine all of this. Even entering into a period of uncertainty would be unwelcome as it would deter potential partner Universities from establishing new research and teaching partnerships with us.
SO, over the next few days I’m going to have a look at each of the parties and their policies in these areas and score the manifesto commitments out of 5.
I’d be keen to know if anyone thinks I’ve left something off.