At the weekend, I posted some thoughts about what the General Election means for HE and promised to scour (aka quick search for key terms) through the party manifestos to see how they scored against the 4 critical policy areas (as I saw them). I’m giving double weighting to Tuition Fees and Immigration because I think they are the most acute areas of impact for the HE sector. On Monday, I scored the Lib Dem Manifesto, yesterday the Labour Party, today the Conservatives.
1) Tuition Fees: The Conservatives supported the establishment of the cross-party ‘Browne Review’ before the 2010 election, when the report was published the were in coalition government and had to implement the necessary reforms. The current regime falls short of some of Browne’s wilder recommendations, but signalled a major shift in policy as the variable fees cap was lifted to £9k meaning that almost all funding for tuition came from students with negligible state funding for some of the science subjects.
This policy has shifted the burden of University funding on to students and I must admit to sharing the concerns at the time that this would act as a deterrent to many able students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Fact is, the exact opposite has happened; student numbers have continued to grow, with rate of growth being particularly strong among students from non-traditional backgrounds. I think credit for this must go to David Willetts as the Conservative Minister for HE.
An important point to note is that because of this policy, in a period where public sector spending has been reduced dramatically, funding for teaching in HE has grown above the rate of GDP growth over last parliament. The graph below makes the point very clearly.
The manifesto effectively offers a continuation of this policy (although there is mention of some sort of teaching excellence framework which is worrying!) so this would offer the stability I think Universities desperately need in this area as well as the continuation of a successful regime. 5 out of 5
2) Research Funding: There is no commitment to safeguarding research funding in the manifesto. This is disappointing because the current government has been supportive of research and ringfenced the science budget. A number of specific initiatives such as the Royal Institute for Advanced Materials are reannounced but the heavy lifting looks as though it will come after the election when the Nurse Review of the research councils will require a response.
It looks like we will miss David Willetts’ influence and support here so a disappointing but balanced 3 out of 5.
3) Immigration: There was some vague hope that the Conservatives might see the light and be pursuaded by the Lib Dems to remove international students from the net immigration figures. No such luck! The manifesto, rightly emphasises the need to tackle abuse and I think there is some (limited) room for the government and the HE sector to be pleased with the work done to clamp down on ‘bogus colleges’ which were not helping to enhance the reputation of the sector and were undermining the case for a more liberal approach to student fees.
Regrettably, that’s all that can be said that’s positive. There’s a random proposal to clamp down on London campuses, with no explanation as to why this might be necessary. A committment to continue to review Tier 4 status and introduce exit checks for international students will add further bureaucratic burden to universities and send the wrong signal to potential international students.
Hopeless; but a single point in recognition of success tackling genuine abuse of the system, 1 out of 5.
4) Membership of the EU: Universities need stability here and the Conservatives offer very little. I think the rhetoric has shifted a little over the past 12 months, Cameron is clearly signalling that he would campaign to stay in a moderately reformed EU and none of his negotiating points would have a major impact on HE. However, the very fact of a prolonged renegotiation and a divisive referendum would limit the UK’s access to EU research funding (which other European University would want to bid with a UK partner of our presence in the EU might be shortlisted?!). A slight lift because ultimately I think the Conservatives in government would negotiate and then campaign to stay ‘in’. 2 out of 5.
Overall 17 out of 30.