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Higher education and the general election: Opening remarks to the AUA Annual Conference in Nottingham

  • 2 April 2015

On 1 April 2015, the HEPI Director, Nick Hillman, delivered a speech to the Association of University Administrators’ Annual Conference (AUA) in Nottingham on ‘Higher education and the general election’. This is the opening section of the speech (though the first section was abridged somewhat on delivery).


Thank you for inviting me. It is my first time at the AUA’s Annual Conference and it is a great pleasure to be here because the work you do keeps our higher education institutions thriving. I am particularly pleased to be speaking to you today of all days because I am a historian by background and it was exactly a year ago that the bones of Robin Hood were discovered just a couple of miles away from here. This revelation is not as well known as it deserves to be. At the time, Jeff Allen, the owner of Nottingham’s Castle Sound and Vision shop, outside where the bones were found, said:

Frankly, I blame Leicester [University] and Richard the Third … From the time they found his bones in that car park it was only a matter of time before our (rather nicer) city managed to pull Robin Hood out of the hat (or more specifically his place of burial).

But of course that turned out to be as plausible as spaghetti trees and as much of an April Fool.

My organisation, HEPI, is an independent, non-partisan charitable think tank. We were established in 2002 as the UK’s only specialist think tank on higher education – which we remain to this day. Our goal is to shape the higher education debate for the better, with research. If we had a strapline, it would be ‘using evidence to help politicians resist the temptation of saying stupid things’.

We are very grateful to those who support our work, which I suspect includes the majority of universities in this room, and for the positive relationship we have forged with the AUA over the years. That was cemented just a few days ago when the newest article of the AUA’s Perspectives magazine was posted online. It is a revamped version of HEPI’s 2014 Annual Lecture by Professor Paul Wellings, the former Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster University and the current Vice-Chancellor of Wollongong University in New South Wales, which compares the UK and Australian higher education systems.

I know this is the morning after the night before for those of you who were at the dinner last night. I sympathise, as I had to catch a very early train to Nottingham this morning as we had our own annual conference yesterday at the Royal Society in London. It was on the 2014 Research Evaluation Framework and the future of research assessment, with speakers including David Willetts, David Sweeney of Hefce and Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

We took the opportunity to launch our newest pamphlet: a HEPI Occasional Paper in which the authors float the idea of a National Licence so that everyone with a computer in the UK can access the latest academic research for free at the point of use. It is a thought-provoking idea that – considering your three conference themes of devolution, diversity and disruption – would certainly be disruptive. It has gone down well with teachers, FE lecturers and policy wonks who desperately need better access to academic research than they currently have. But it has gone down rather less well with the more zealous end of the open access lobby, who tend to think that everyone anywhere in the world should immediately have access to all newly-published research.

As a small ‘l’ liberal, I have tended towards the open end of the access debate – not least because, lacking an institutional log-in, I have in the past found it hard even to access articles I have written myself, let alone others’ research. Moreover, I would have found it very useful to have had access to more academic research in some of my previous jobs – including, when I was a secondary school teacher and in the decade I spent as a Westminster / Whitehall policy adviser. At HEPI, we are lucky to have sufficient core funding to make all our pamphlets openly and freely available from the day of publication in both hard and soft copies. But there are important unanswered questions in some of the purist arguments of this debate. To name just two, what happens to the fully-blown peer-review procedures developed by publishers and delivered by academics, which help to maintain quality, and how do we open up the vast amounts of pre-existing (rather than new) research to more people?

Again, as a small ‘l’ liberal, I have found it surprising how rapidly some advocates of ‘open’ appear to want to ‘close’ down debate about the different options without fully engaging with such questions. Smart policymaking involves recognising today’s starting point and then proposing workable alternatives. It is not a game of skittles in which you knock everything down in the vague hope that someone might come along afterwards to rearrange them in a prettier pattern.

Either way, the new pamphlet provides a good example of how we aim to put ideas on the table for discussion: we are clear that it is a proposal for people to engage with and respond to constructively rather than a fully-formed ready-to-bake policy.

Higher education and the general election

My title is ‘Higher education and the general election’. It is very timely because Parliament was prorogued on Monday and we are now in ‘the short campaign’, with exactly five weeks to go. When I spoke on a not dissimilar theme at another university recently, the compere gave me a double-edged compliment afterwards. He said: ‘You’ve raised lots of questions, even if you haven’t been able to answer many of them’. So, while I will grapple with what I see as five specific challenges, I have to start with one overarching challenge: political uncertainty.

A journalist at The Times put it rather well:

Everything the Westminster establishment thinks it knows about polls suggests that Ed Miliband is likely to be our next prime minister. Everything it knows about politics indicates that David Cameron will still be in No 10 come next May. That is the central fact of modern politics, the conundrum around which all politicians and journalists agonise in every conversation and working lunch when views are exchanged.

That comment is a few months old now but it could have been written today. The pollsters argue Labour will have the most seats in the House of Commons after May 7, but the betting markets – who are said to have a better record at predicting the results – think the Conservatives could.

There is a common assumption that university funding affects general election results. That’s why Nick Clegg and his fellow Liberal Democrats tried so hard – and successfully – to win the student vote in 2010. But the idea that HE swings elections does not stand up particularly well to scrutiny.

The Conservatives introduced maintenance loans in 1990 and won in 1992. Labour introduced tuition fees and abolished maintenance grants in 1998 and won in 2001. Labour legislated for higher fees in 2004, to take effect from 2006, and won the intervening election in 2005.

The salience of higher education in general elections is linked to the student vote – which has shifted from red to Green in recent months. But to affect the result materially, students need to be sufficiently concentrated in marginal seats – and to vote differently to the rest of the local population. We published a report in December 2014 with lots of data crunching by an Oxford Professor that found students are set to swing the result in only 10 to 12 seats come May 7 – though of course if the election is very close, that could determine who enters Number 10. Our predictions foresaw Labour gaining around six seats from the Conservatives and three from the Lib Dems, and the Conservatives winning two from the Lib Dems, with the Greens perhaps getting one or two seats thanks to students.

Even these predictions assume students register to vote in large numbers, which is not always the case – particularly thanks to the new Individual Electoral Registration system. Not only do students have as much right as everyone else to exercise their democratic voice, but it is illegal for them not to register to vote. Moreover, in my view, it is part of the duty-of-care that universities have over students to help them register. If that does not convince you, remember that the new electoral rolls will inform the redrawing of constituency boundaries. So institutions risk being under-represented in Westminster if the local electoral roll is artificially low.

I urge you to look at best practice at places like the University of Sheffield. They added two questions to their enrolment process for new and returning students last autumn. As a result, two-thirds (64%) of students opted to register to vote in Sheffield. This success was initially disrupted by many students’ inability to provide their National Insurance numbers. But new guidance from the Cabinet Office allows them to be added to the electoral register using data verified by the University. So even this problem is now resolved. It can be done.

The rest of the speech focused on the sorts of issues covered in HEPI’s recent Election Briefing.

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