This blog about the Conservative party Conference by HEPI’s Director, Nick Hillman, first appeared at the weekend on the website of Research Fortnight (at http://www.researchresearch.com/news/article/?articleId=1370475). See @ on Twitter for further information.
The number seven has many special properties. There are seven days of the week, seven colours of the rainbow, seven notes in a musical scale, seven ages of man, seven continents and seven seas. In 2014, a journalist asked people to pick their favourite number and, 44,000 votes later, the number 7 topped the poll (with 110, sadly, being deemed the least popular).
I have been thinking about this because it is seven years since the Conservatives returned to office. That makes it a risky political moment. Seven years in, it is too late to lay the blame for all the country’s problems convincingly at the door of the previous administration. It also tends to be around the time when governments start cementing their legacy or loosening their grip on power.
Some say, in politics, you should save your boldest policies for the middle of your second term of office, at around seven years in. Your powerbase should still be sturdy, but you should also have enough political capital left for bold reforms. That has been the pattern in higher education anyway. Student loans first became a dead cert when, seven years after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, Ken Baker set up a review of student finance. It was seven years after entering Number 10 that Tony Blair passed legislation introducing high tuition fees too.
Today, the Tories are not as secure in office as Thatcher and Blair were at the same point in their political cycles. Indeed, there are plenty of signs that voters are feeling the seven-year itch and are looking elsewhere for satisfaction. This is partly the Conservatives’ own fault for calling the unnecessary 2017 general election.
Most notably, perhaps, the centre-right are struggling to secure support from students and young people. So, as the Tories gather for their annual conference in Manchester, it is a good moment to take stock of the politics of higher education. Here are seven points on it.
First, counter-intuitively, it is important to recognise that student finance is not the electoral game changer that people tend to suppose. Consider the history: the Tories introduced student loans in 1990 and won the next election; Labour introduced fees in 1998 and won the next election; Labour legislated to triple tuition fees in 2004 and won the next election; a Tory-led Coalition tripled fees in 2012 and the Tories won the next election; the Conservatives abolished grants in 2016 and (sort of) won the next election. So, if the current rumours of a reduction in the £9,000 fee cap turn out to be true, it is unlikely to make much electoral difference. Obsessing about the finer points of full-time undergraduate finance also helps to mask more important grievances, such as support for part-time students, the underachievement of poor white men and the falling behind of other ethnic groups after entering higher education.
Secondly, it is worth striving to understand why students are not powerful in individual constituencies. The answer is there are lots of hurdles they have to jump before getting noticed. They must: register to vote; turn up to vote; vote differently from other local voters; and vote in a marginal constituency. Yet students often live in urban constituencies that would vote for left-wing MPs anyway. Sheffield Central has the most student voters of any constituency, but the local Labour MP, Paul Blomfield, has a 71% share of the vote. If no students voted, he would still be the MP. Meanwhile, Theresa May is not directly affected by left-of-centre students as there is no university in Maidenhead.
Thirdly, if politicians in the past had really believed students were a powerful electoral force, they would almost certainly have behaved differently. They have generally taken the route of promising to abolish fees when miles away from office but then tacking rightwards on getting closer to power. At the 2005 election, Michael Howard pledged to abolish fees but David Cameron dropped the promise as Number 10 beckoned. Some will say the current discussions about fees changes this dynamic. Perhaps. But a few tweaks here and there remain more likely than a wholesale change. (Just look at how difficult they are finding it to abolish fees in Chile.)
Fourthly, it is worth recalling that students do not generally choose whom to vote for on the basis of so-called ‘student issues’. HEPI polled students last April, before the Labour Party had confirmed they wanted to abolish fees and bring back grants. Over half of those who had decided how to vote said they would support Labour. In the same poll, they said the issues they cared most about were the NHS and Europe. Other evidence, under discussion at the HEPI / UPP events at the Labour and Conservative party conferences, suggest housing and jobs matter too.
Fifthly, it is not wise to read too much into any apparent leftward lurch by students. The current trend resembles nothing so much as the past. Margaret Thatcher resigned during my first term at university and I was the only student willing to tell our union newspaper, Mancunion, that I considered it a sad day. It was such an out-of-the-ordinary view that I duly appeared on the front page. But people’s views often change after higher education that will be true for many of today’s students too.
Sixthly, while the student voice has been, regrettably, just a whisper in the corridors of power recently, it is possible this is changing. On issues like students’ mental health, restricting extremism and numerous equality issues, smart students’ representatives can make a real difference. Initiatives like the poverty commission established by Shakira Martin, the NUS President, have the potential to amplify the student voice in the places where it is needed but has been missing.
Seventhly, despite all that I have argued about the lack of electoral force in student finance policies, I think the pressure from young people to redress intergenerational inequities could produce a head of steam. It could conceivably bring Corbyn to power. But it would be foolish to write the Conservatives off. Popular forms of capitalism may provide a better solution to the intergenerational debate than new restrictions. Just look at how many younger voters are more angry about Uber losing their licence than they are excited by the prospect of restrictive rent controls returning.
In a new book launched to coincide with this week’s conference, I argue in a personal capacity that one way to meet people’s aspirations would be to commit to a further big expansion on higher education. Now that could leave a legacy of which to be proud.