HEPI’s new Director of Policy and Advocacy, Dr Diana Beech, provides a summary of our annual Policy Briefing Day.
If ever there was a good day to hold a conference on higher education policy developments, it was yesterday – the day the Higher Education and Research Bill (HER Bill) achieved Royal Assent.
While the Lords were busy debating the HER Bill for the final time, HEPI partner organisations gathered together across London in Bush House, now part of King’s College London, to examine the Whitehall policymaking process and to consider the risks and opportunities facing UK universities over the long-term. The opening session was led by John Cater, Vice-Chancellor of Edge Hill University, who discussed his new HEPI report on teacher training – you can watch a video of his main arguments here.
Following this, political advisers from across the party divides provided insights into how policy is made and implemented at the heart of government. Rachel Wolf, former adviser to two Prime Ministers, gave the opening keynote on policymaking inside No.10. She explained how No.10 is always looking for new ideas and how sectors could do better at generating these ideas. In her view, the ‘reactive, generic complaining’ that the higher education sector has displayed of late, particularly towards Brexit and the HER Bill, is not going to attract the attention of Ministers. In fact, with universities now being seen as ‘universally hostile to Brexit’, she fears this has potentially weakened their position in terms of influence at the centre of government.
Personalities were discussed as being key to attracting policymakers’ attention. Katie Waring, former Liberal Democrat Special Adviser, urged the sector to find out what politicians care about personally and to consider how it can use these interests to cooperate effectively. She stressed that ‘politics is an art not a science’, so applying the same tactics to different Ministers is not going to get your voice heard. In the current climate of Brexit, Daniel Gilbert, the former Special Adviser to Universities Minister Jo Johnson who now works at Hanover Communications, suggested universities tailor their priorities to fit the Government’s expressed goal of ensuring the UK’s departure from the EU is a success.
Fortuitously for HEPI, Gordon Marsden MP, Shadow Minister for Higher and Further Education and Skills, provided the main keynote of the day. He spoke about the HER Bill and stressed that the amended Bill is now much approved thanks to Opposition activity, yet argued it is still far from perfect. He confirmed Labour will continue to fight the link between the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and tuition fees and stressed the TEF must not be a ‘backdoor way to remove the current fees cap’. He also announced that Labour will reinstate maintenance grants if elected to office on 8 June as a way to promote social mobility and also look at creating personal learner accounts funded on the contributory principle. He, nevertheless, avoided the question of whether a Labour government would scrap tuition fees and left the audience waiting for the publication of the Party’s manifesto early next month instead.
The final panel of the day examined the relationship between universities and the media, inspired by Richard Garner’s recent publication for HEPI, Return on Investment? How universities communicate with the outside world. Amanda Wolthuizen, Head of Public Affairs at Imperial College London, emphasised the importance of universities having dedicated communcations teams at this time of uncertainty for the sector to enable them to get information out quickly and to respond to political developments more effectively. She also suggested that universities could be thinking of new ways to use the media ‘to get the public onside’ – something which is especially important considering the overwhelming rejection of experts in the wake of the referendum result last June. It was Richard Garner, however, who closed the day and gave participants something to think about on their way home – namely the importance of harnessing the global media to show that the UK is not unwelcoming to international students. This is something that is certain to remain a hot topic for universities in the years ahead as the day closed with the parliamentary approval of a Bill which could have but did not remove international student numbers from the official net migration figures.