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Election spotlight on HE policy: Liberal Democrats

  • 2 June 2017
  • By Liberal Democrats

With just one week to go until the General Election, HEPI is asking the political parties for their views on higher education issues. We are asking the same 5 questions to all parties.

The second post in our series comes from the Liberal Democrats.

How do you think undergraduate study should be funded?

The Liberal Democrats’ priority is to ensure that Britain’s world-class universities are open to all, regardless of background or parental wealth. We will reinstate maintenance grants to help poorer students with living costs, and bring back bursaries for student nurses, reversing the Conservatives’ short-sighted decision to abolish them.

For the longer term, we will establish a review of higher education finance to consider any necessary reforms, with a focus on widening participation and improving quality. We will ensure that there is no more retrospective raising of rates, or selling-off of loans to private companies.

Will you introduce any policies to tackle the decline in part-time learning?

Part-time courses are important for widening access to university and improving social mobility. They enable people to combine work and family commitments with study, and are a popular way for adults to gain new skills and qualifications after the age of 21.

That’s why, in coalition, the Liberal Democrats made tuition fee loans available to part-time students for the first time. The decline in part-time learning – which began before the reforms to tuition fees – is a cause for concern, and our review of higher education finance will seek ways to reverse it.

If you win, what approach will you take to university research?

Research is vital for Britain’s long-term economic prosperity, our security and our wellbeing. The Liberal Democrats’ goal is to double research and development spending in the UK from its current 1.7% of GDP, taking it above the international benchmark of 3%. We will begin by increasing the science budget each year at least in line with inflation, and guaranteeing funding for British researchers currently in EU-funded programmes such as Horizon 2020.

Brexit is a huge threat to our universities. We will give the British people the final say on the Brexit deal in a referendum, with the option to reject it and remain in the EU. It’s your future, so it should be your choice.

When it comes to research funding, the Liberal Democrats support the Haldane Principle. We believe that decisions about which projects to fund should be based on the quality of individual proposals and taken by scientists and academics – not by politicians. This is, after all, an approach that has helped to make the UK a world leader in science and research.

Will you encourage higher education institutions to continue bringing together students and staff from all over the world?

British universities benefit hugely from the contributions of students and academics from the EU and around the world. Collectively, the 438,000 international students studying here generate more than £13 billion for our economy, and support more than 200,000 jobs. Their fees help to fund our universities, and their research helps to keep Britain at the forefront of science and technology. The ability to attract and retain the best staff and students is vital for our future.

But Theresa May’s pursuit of an extreme, destructive Brexit – supported by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party ­– threatens to turn them away. The number of EU nationals applying to our universities has already fallen by 6%, and 53% of foreign academics say they are now actively looking to leave the UK. Things are made worse by Theresa May’s obsession with reducing net immigration to below 100,000 a year, and her stubborn refusal to exclude students from that target.

A brighter future is possible. The Liberal Democrats will guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK to stay here, ending the damaging uncertainty that the Conservative government has inflicted on their lives. We will continue to recognise the value of international staff to universities, and to promote international collaboration. And we will give the British people the final say over the Brexit deal in a referendum.

What do you see as the main purposes of the university system?

Our universities play a number of important and overlapping roles. First, they give people the chance to gain the skills and qualifications they need to get on in life. Widening access is therefore vital to building a fairer society where everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential. Second, they equip Britain’s workforce with the knowledge and skills our economy will need to stay strong and competitive. Third, they provide a huge boost to local economies, spurring business investment that creates growth and jobs, often in places that badly need them. Finally, they generate world-class research that expands the boundaries of knowledge, develops new technologies and cures disease. Our universities are therefore a crucial part of the brighter future the Liberal Democrats want to build.

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