The higher education mission groups and representative bodies are in the process of making recommendations for the next Government but each Vice-Chancellor does not typically produce their own manifesto. So HEPI is particularly pleased to host this guest blog by Professor Quintin McKellar, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, in the form of his personal higher education manifesto for the 2015 general election.
The combination of cuts to non-protected budgets, uncertainty over tuition fees and an uncompetitive visa regime is a toxic mix. So the next parliament could be the most difficult for our sector since the squeeze on the unit of resource in the 70s and 80s. This election matters!
Whilst politics impacts on us, we also have an impact on politics. It’s true that higher education may never be central to an election’s outcome, but as everyone who reads this blog knows, policies that affect higher education impact the prosperity and wellbeing of our nation. So the health of our sector is something politicians should be extremely careful of.
In that vein, this blog summarises my manifesto for higher education. A full transcript of my lecture, which explains it in more detail, is also available.
My manifesto focusses on three themes: opportunity, affordability and impact.
All the evidence shows that increasing the number of graduates improves the economy, produces a better society and transforms lives. So I fully support the government’s policy of removing the cap on student numbers, which will inevitably increase participation, allow popular universities to grow and ensure more students go to their first choice institution.
However, we do need to look closely at what and how people learn. My manifesto attempts to increase the small proportion of undergraduates that undertake a sandwich placement. Students who take them tend to get better grades and better paid jobs when they graduate, so universities and employers benefit from students who gain work experience during their degree. The problem for employers – particularly small and medium sized enterprises – is that the cost of training and developing a student is pretty prohibitive. Therefore I would offer SMEs the same cash benefit from taking on a sandwich placement that they get from taking on an apprentice. As this happens for apprenticeships, I see no reason why this shouldn’t happen for placement students too.
My manifesto also offers solutions to expand international opportunities by taking students out of net migration statistics and reintroducing the automatic two-year post-study work visas for overseas students graduating from UK universities.
We all benefit from a highly educated population but the individual graduate derives the greatest benefit from their university education through lifetime earnings premiums and cultural enrichment. So whilst both the state and graduate should pay, the graduate should contribute the largest share.
The problems with the current system are well documented. Universities face inflationary pressure, the loan system offers poor value to the taxpayer, and students have debts hanging over their heads for a long time. My manifesto offers a short term fix to address inflationary pressure on universities, and a longer term solution to sustainability. In the short term the £9k fee should be indexed according to inflation. This may be politically difficult but if we wish to retain the best pound for pound higher education system in the world it is essential. In the longer-term we need to establish a sustainable system for providing loans. My manifesto broadly supports the model proposed by University Alliance. It offers a lifetime maximum loan allocation which can be used for undergraduate, post-graduate or part-time study, with a payback rate that tackles the high taxpayer subsidy. It is also a progressive scheme as those earning more, pay back more. The downside from the graduate perspective is that they pay back at a higher rate, but the benefit is that they pay it back sooner. Research conducted by IPSOS Mori on behalf of the University Alliance found that by a margin of two to one, undergraduates and their parents would rather pay back loans quicker with higher monthly payments than longer with smaller monthly repayments. So students are amenable to this solution.
The third part of my manifesto relates to the impact, primarily of our research, in society.
In general, the system of funding research in the UK, although clunky to administer, is fair. It is largely based on quality peer review and competitive bidding, and excellence is funded wherever it exists. I would ensure this system stays in place. Competition through peer review has been the driving force behind the sector’s research strength, placing 29 of our universities in the top 200 in the world, and making us second best only to the US and best for value for money.
Finally, The Higher Education Innovation Fund has become the lifeblood of university business collaboration. It funds knowledge exchange projects where academics and students work with business to solve problems or create new products. Every £1 invested in HEIF generates an additional £6, so the return on investment is huge – demonstrating positive impact. The Chief Executive of GSK, Sir Andrew Witty, recommended that HEIF should be increased from £160 million to £250 million – a recommendation which I fully endorse in my manifesto.
To conclude, my key manifesto commitments are the following:
- Enable employers the opportunity to employ work-ready graduates by incentivising the expansion of sandwich placements.
- Remove overseas students from net migration figures, and offer overseas graduates from British universities automatic two-year post-study work visas
- Create a sustainable funding system which adequately supports universities and is fair to the taxpayer and graduate alike, caters for postgraduate and part time students and is not a barrier to those from poorer backgrounds.
- Support research excellence wherever it is found and invest in the links between universities and businesses which will support the economy and enrich society.
Sadly you will not get the opportunity to vote for me in May, but please press your politicians to support my manifesto.