It seems the predictions that higher education will not play a major part in the 2015 general election campaign (made by HEPI and others) are coming true. New research by Loughborough University shows higher education has so far made up just 0.3 per cent of general election policy discussions.
This comparative silence doesn’t necessarily reflect balmy contentment with the manifesto commitments as they drip out (though of course it is true that there are many proposals that will receive a warm welcome from the higher education sector and readers of this blog will anyway have different views).
So here is our current Wall of Shame:
- The Green Party commitment to reintroduce maintenance grants, which have – apart from a brief hiatus between 1998 and 2004 – existed for decades. Is this a spending commitment they did not need to make?
- The Conservative Party’s renewed commitment to reduce net inward migration to tens of thousands, with no exclusion for international students. Theresa May seems to have comprehensively won the argument and there will be no red carpet laid down for students from abroad. But can the tough talk survive new Coalition negotiations with, say, the Lib Dems?
- The Labour Party’s flaky sources of income for reducing tuition fees. Some of the money that was announced just a few weeks ago for reducing fees was taken by the Chancellor in the Budget and this has since been replaced by a vague commitment to reduce tax avoidance instead. During the election campaign, Labour have also said they will divert £50 million away from higher education to careers advice for school-aged people. So there is considerable doubt and uncertainty on how much – and for how long – the funding shortfall from lower fees will be made up.
- UKIP’s repeated commitment to drop the 50 per cent target for young people going to higher education, which is history as it was a target set by Tony Blair for 2010 and neither party in the Coalition subscribed to it. UKIP are also committed to cancelling the tuition fee debts of students taking degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine, which typically lead to well-paid careers.
- The Liberal Democrats’ silence on future student numbers. Perhaps the single most important higher education reform delivered by the Coalition is the removal of student number controls, so that higher education institutions are free to recruit as many students as they like. The fact that the Lib Dems are completely silent on a policy that seems to have been driven more by the Conservative half of the Coalition suggests they may not be fully committed to it.
- The Scottish National Party’s claim to ‘keep university education in Scotland free’ when analysis shows that, within the UK, ‘Scotland is unique in having a system which assigns the highest student debt to those from the lowest income homes, due to its much lower use of student grant.’
- Plaid Cymru’s commitment to use financial incentives to encourage people living in Wales to study in Wales, which risks treating higher education as a local public service just as it is becoming more truly international elsewhere and which ignores the problems that some courses are not available in Wales and that the geography of Wales can sometimes make English universities more accessible to people living close to the border.
- The DUP commitment that they will ‘Make Higher Education affordable for all’, but with no detail on what this might mean, for example for future tuition fee levels.
Further information on the main higher education issues that are unresolved as the election approaches is provided in the HEPI election briefing document, which has been circulated to thousands of election candidates up and down the country. Other useful information can be found on the Publications page.
This page is primarily about the major parties, but we will also try to keep a brief record of similar issues from the minor parties below:
- The Young People’s Party are committed to fully funding around one million UK students but display naivety on how to pay for higher education, stating ‘we would simply write off the bulk of the nominal £60 billion accumulated [student loan] debt on day one’ and committing to build ‘several thousand units (bed sits or studio flats) in purpose built blocks, the cost of which will be minimal’.
- The Christian People’s Alliance’s commitment to abolish tuition fees, give more money to universities and raise student numbers, without explaining how they will pay for it – while simultaneously criticising the Lib Dems for falling in to a comparable hole at the 2010 election.