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What would PM May mean for HE?

  • 30 June 2016

In today’s copy of The Times, Theresa May has an article launching her bid to become Conservative Party Leader and therefore Prime Minister. The piece ticks as many boxes as possible for the two electorates she has to satisfy: first, her 329 fellow Conservative Members of Parliament; and, secondly, the 150,000 Conservative Party members. It also finds room for a dig or two at other candidates (or, at least, one other candidate).

People in the higher education sector will have mixed views about the idea of the Home Secretary moving up to the top post. She has presided over a gradual tightening of the rules for international students and refused to remove students from the target for reducing net inward migration. Higher education institutions have had to live with backdoor regulation by the Home Office. On the other hand, there is respect for her experience and toughness: two characteristics that might be especially important in the months ahead as the consequences of the referendum play out.

What does it all mean for higher education? Her new article has a particular focus on social mobility, with various mentions of education:

If you’re born poor in today’s Britain, you will die on average nine years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.

If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you still earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s too often not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home. These are all burning injustices, and I am determined to fight against them.

But the mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone goes further than fighting these injustices. If you’re from an ordinary, working-class family, life is just much harder than many people in politics realise. You have a job, but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about mortgage rates going up. You can just about manage, but you worry about the cost of living and the quality of the local school, because there’s no other choice for you.

Frankly, not everybody in Westminster understands what it’s like to live like this. And some need to be told that what the government does isn’t a game, it’s a serious business that has real consequences for people’s lives.

Whether or not Theresa May manages to beat Boris Johnson and the other candidates (and her chances are not bad), this is highly unlikely to depend upon her views on higher education. But it is still worth noting that, in a speech delivered in 2013 (entitled ‘We Will Win by Being the Party for All’) that was widely seen as early moves towards a leadership bid, she called for lower tuition fees for certain disciplines:

government should identify the training and skills capabilities we need, and tailor its policies accordingly. It could encourage the establishment of more technical schools. It could work with schools and business to get more young people studying science, technology, engineering and maths. It could fund deep discounts in tuition fees for students who want to study degrees like engineering, where we have a shortage of skilled workers. This kind of planning already takes place in the immigration system, with a shortage occupation list in key sectors, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t apply the same logic to our own workforce.

Others have floated with this idea in the past and it is more problematic than it initially appears: when Labour were rumoured to be toying with the idea before the 2015 general election, we pointed out some of the flaws with it. But, as this is one of Theresa May’s few recent public comments about the future of the education system and she could be Prime Minister in a few weeks, it perhaps still worth noting.

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