As I travel around the country visiting higher education institutions (HEIs), I am asked surprisingly often what UKIP’s policies on higher education are. There is particular interest in the question within HEIs that sit in areas where the party has a strong local presence. I’m not complaining: it is a reasonable question to ask the Director of a specialist think tank that seeks to bridge the gap between institutions and policymakers.
But I am never able to give a good answer. It may be my fault: perhaps I should spend longer reading the runes. Or perhaps it is just how politics works this far from a general election. The main political parties have yet to state explicitly what their pitch will be in 2015 as well. So why should a minor party do it so early, especially one that has a stronger focus on foreign policy than domestic social policy?
Yet it is frustrating to know nothing at all about UKIP’s current thinking on higher education. The other main parties can at least be judged by their records in office over the past decade. Moreover, UKIP are the only significant party with a leader who has not attended university so they might see the world differently.
I suspect it would strike other European nations with more pluralistic political traditions as odd that a party can ride so high in the polls without emitting any clear signals on such an important area of policy.
The website Wonkhe had a stab at assessing UKIP’s current HE policies not long ago. But the interesting post there is partly based on an analysis of policy documents produced by local UKIP branches, which – though better than nothing – is far from a failsafe way to discern any party’s policies. If David Cameron and Ed Miliband only listened to the local branches of their parties, their policies would be different.
We at HEPI have recently sought to survey the 24 UKIP MEPs for their views on HE on the grounds that they are the most senior elected representatives of their party (and include the party’s leading figures, such as Nigel Farage). But the woeful response rate suggests they are not inclined to respond to surveys.
So, even though their party leader has disowned the document in its entirety, the most instructive thing to do is probably to look at the relevant sections of UKIP’s 2010 manifesto.
Here they are:
- Denationalise universities and further education (FE) colleges by replacing the present complex systems of grants and loans with ‘Student Vouchers’ and ‘Training Vouchers’ to be issued to every citizen at the age of 18. These vouchers will be paid by the student to the college or university and equal ‘Basic Cash Benefit’ … . Individuals will be able to use the vouchers at any time in their adult life
- Universities and FE colleges will function as independent charities, responsible only for their curricula and performance, and accountable only to their students
- On-the-job nurse training and hospital-based colleges will replace most university courses
- Replace current teacher training with more on-the-job training, and insist on higher qualifications for aspiring teachers
- Scrap the nonsensical target of making 50% of school leavers go to university, and allow universities to choose their students based on academic ability and merit alone. We will abolish social engineering and the Office of Fair Access. UKIP will change a number of universities back into skills and vocational colleges
- Return to a student grant system, as opposed to student loans which leave many graduates in heavy debt. We will offer all students ‘Student Vouchers’ for a proportion of their costs equivalent to ‘Basic Cash Benefit’ … and allow them to top up the vouchers by working or taking out commercial student loans
If any UKIP-pers want to explain how and why the party’s views have changed since 2010, if indeed they have, we’d love to hear from you – as would more people than you might expect working in the UK’s higher education institutions.