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Spotlight on HE policy: Sarah Olney (Liberal Democrats)

  • 6 June 2017
  • By Sarah Olney

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.

In this post, Sarah Olney, Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate for Richmond Park, has given her views in our HE policy interview.

How do you think undergraduate study should be funded?

In government, Liberal Democrats established a fairer system such that no undergraduate student in England had to pay a penny of their tuition fees up front or pay anything afterwards until they earn more than £21,000 per year. This meant that only high-earning graduates would pay their tuition fees in full, and eliminated systematic discrimination against part-time students. We now have the highest university application rates ever, including from disadvantaged students. But the Conservatives are threatening to undermine opportunity by ending student bursaries, freezing the repayment threshold and raising the level of fees.

We will:

  • Reinstate maintenance grants for the poorest students, ensuring that living costs are not a barrier to disadvantaged young people studying at university.
  • Establish a review of higher education finance in the next parliament to consider any necessary reforms, in the light of the latest evidence of the impact of the existing financing system on access, participation and quality, and make sure there is no more retrospective raising of rates, or selling-off of loans to private companies.
  • Ensure that all universities work to widen participation across the sector, prioritising their work with students in schools and colleges, and require every university to be transparent about selection criteria.

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

We are very concerned about the recent slump in the number of part-time students. While full-time undergraduate enrolments have gone up over the last ten years in the UK, part-time undergraduate enrolments have gone down, this has been especially true for women and mature students.

There are many reasons why the number of part-time student enrolments has fallen but we are clear that the lack of a standardised credit accumulation and transfer framework at institutions contributes to the problem. The lack of a widely used framework means that very few students transfer between – or take time out of – institutions during courses. This leads to many students dropping out of courses when their circumstances change or the course fails to live up to their expectations.

We will develop – together with university “mission groups” – a comprehensive credit accumulation and transfer framework which enable students to accumulate credits and complete their programme at their own pace. They can break their studies more easily and also transfer between and within institutions to suit their needs. While the majority of universities use credit-based systems internally, few students break their studies or transfer between institutions.

Implementing a widespread system would allow people to fit their higher education around their own lives and also help to ease the financial burden on them. This reform will work to increase the number of people studying part-time whilst working full-time and allow people to transfer institutions more easily if their circumstances change.

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

Research is vital for our long-term prosperity, security and wellbeing – but the Leave vote has already started to affect existing and proposed research programmes. We will campaign against any reduction in investment in UK universities and for their right to apply for EU funds on equal terms.

If we leave the EU we will push forward to become an “Associated Country” within EU which will retain our access to Horizon 2020 projects and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions funding.

We have specific manifesto commitment to protect the science budget, including the recent £2 billion increase, by continuing to raise it at least in line with inflation. Our long-term goal is to double innovation and research spending across the economy.

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

We recognise the need to ensure that the UK remains a desirable destination for international students and staff. That’s why we have committed to unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU nationals in the UK, ending their ongoing uncertainty. We will call for the overhaul and simplification of the registration process and the requirements for EU nationals to obtain permanent residence and UK citizenship, as the current system is not fit for purpose. Obviously we will be seeking to secure the same rights for UK citizens living in European Union countries.

Recognising their largely temporary status, we would remove students from the official migration statistics. We will work with universities to ensure a fair and transparent student visa process and find ways to measure accurately the number of students leaving at the end of their course. We will also reinstate post-study work visas for graduates in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects who find suitable employment within six months of graduating, and give the devolved administrations the right to sponsor additional post-study work visas.

We want to maintain participation in the Erasmus scheme, which is a fantastic and enriching experience for students and apprentices.

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

Education opens the mind, it fosters understanding and tolerance, and it empowers our citizens and our communities. We believe every one deserves to be equipped to shape their own future, and are determined to make sure that the education system finds and unleashes the best in everyone. This is essential in order to break down the unfair divisions in our society, to ensure a productive, competitive economy, and to overcome intolerance.

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