Since the nation woke up on Friday morning to the news of a hung parliament, one party from Northern Ireland has found itself thrust into the limelight as the key to sustaining another Conservative term in office. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – Northern Ireland’s largest political party, representing a right-of-centre, unionist position – and its 10 MPs have become the powerbrokers in Theresa May’s bid to remain in No. 10.

Following Theresa May’s announcement of her intention to come to an agreement with the DUP, the internet has been awash with stories over the weekend of the Democratic Unionists’ controversial positions on issues such as abortion, gay rights and climate change. Focusing on the most contentious aspects of the DUP’s political agenda does not help, however, to paint a realistic picture of how the DUP could influence future government policy. In an attempt to see past the scaremongering, this blog asks: what might a Conservative-DUP agreement really mean for UK higher education?

Current caricature and hyperbole, even in scientific circles, would have us believe allowing the DUP anywhere near power could bring an end to climate change research, hail a new era of evangelical Christian curricula and put a stop to university equality and diversity targets. First, we have to remember that education is a devolved matter, so the DUP won’t get any say over these issues in the rest of the UK whatever the final deal looks like. Second, a quick glance over the DUP manifesto reveals a more balanced approach to higher education policy, even suggesting a move towards a ‘softer’ approach to Brexit – something which the UK university sector has been arguing for since the referendum in June of last year.

Brexit and the border

Despite the DUP being consistently Eurosceptic and having supported a vote to leave the European Union (EU) last year, the DUP’s approach to Brexit is actually not as harsh as many might imagine. Acknowledging the land border shared with the Republic of Ireland and, with it, the EU, the DUP wishes to see a ‘frictionless border… assisting those working or travelling in the other jurisdiction.’ Although this may be good news for staff and students concerned about their freedom of movement between the two countries, it is still worth remembering the DUP would always prioritise links to the UK mainland and could, therefore, look unfavourably on efforts to establish closer ties to the Republic, such as an all-Ireland study visa as recently suggested by the Vice-Chancellor of Ulster University.

European research and innovation

The DUP’s number one priority when it comes to getting the best deal for Northern Ireland from the UK leaving the EU is establishing a ‘successful outward-looking knowledge-based economy in Northern Ireland’ – a pledge which is unashamedly reminiscent of the Lisbon Strategy’s stipulated aim to make Europe ‘the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world.’ With the DUP’s rhetoric so close to that of the vision emanating from the EU, we should not be so quick to expect a sudden departure from European research strategies. In fact, the DUP explicitly campaigned for ‘continued participation in funding programmes that have been proven to be of benefit and are open to non-EU members e.g. research funding,’ suggesting the DUP will demand continued membership of the European Research Area (ERA) and its associated funding sources – something that may reassure UK-based researchers concerned about a potential loss of access to European networks.

International staff and students

Perhaps most significantly for UK universities, the DUP sees international talent as pivotal to the success of the sector. In its manifesto, the party said it expected to see ‘higher and further education continuing to attract international expertise and collaboration,’ suggesting the DUP might push Theresa May to back down on her continued insistence to keep student numbers in overall immigration targets. By envisaging an ‘effective immigration policy which meets the skills, labour and security needs of the UK,’ the DUP might also be open to recommendations for an immigration system that is more favourable to the particular needs of UK universities. So, higher education institutions across the country would do well to continue efforts to devise alternate strategies for immigration to propose to the new government.

Digital skills

Finally, the DUP wishes to see what it calls a ‘digital skills revolution in our schools, colleges and universities to enable young people to become digital citizens, digital workers and digital makers, ready for the modern economy.’ This not only means rethinking existing curricula in Northern Ireland to incorporate digital learning, but the pledge could also likely play into a growing UK-wide narrative of the need to upskill British workers to prepare for a post-Brexit economy. Institutions on the mainland already offering technical or vocational training as part of their commitment to life-long learning agendas may well be inspired by the DUP pledge to devise high-quality digital courses for part-time, mature learners, to allow them to stay ahead of the curve and ensure nobody gets left behind when the ‘digital revolution’ occurs.

For now at least, then, a government supported by the DUP purports to widen prospects for UK universities, not restrict them. Whether the party will have a strong influence in shaping national policies remains to be seen and we are now left to await the exact nature of the agreement between the Conservatives and the DUP as it is negotiated over the coming days…