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What election manifestoes don’t say about higher education is generally more important than what they do

  • 11 November 2019
  • By Nick Hillman

Election manifestoes are a set of promises about what people will do in office. They may not have any official constitutional significance, but they are clearly qualitatively different to other political promises – not least because our revising chamber, the House of Lords, has historically displayed a reluctance to oppose any measures that have appeared in a victorious political party’s manifesto. 

As we await the 2019 election manifestoes, it seems a good moment to look back at the commitments on higher education last time around, which are summarised in the table below.

Manifesto commitments on higher education at the 2017 UK general election

They are a motley collection. Even most of the Tory commitments were not delivered in the two years of Conservative Government since the 2017 election. For example:

  • the tertiary review (sort of) happened via the Augar report – but Augar was meant to be an independent submission to a Government review, and the Government’s own review had not reported by the time Parliament was dissolved;
  • we may or may be on track for the commitments on R&D spending but they remain some years away;
  • the controversial idea of linking academy sponsorship or the founding of free schools to tuition fee policy was quickly dropped; and
  • the commitments on international students, which were deeply unpopular in the higher education sector were dropped on the change of Prime Minister.

No one can blame a party that fails to achieve office for not implementing their promises, as they lack both the popular support and the political means for doing so. (Indeed, it is sometimes said that a manifesto ceases to apply to a political party the minute they lose an election – why go on fighting for a suite of policies that has just been rejected by the electorate?) But even the Conservatives, who remained in office after the 2017 election, failed to win an overall majority. So, arguably, even they may have good reasons for not implementing what they promised just two-and-a-half years ago.

It is unclear how much room will be left for higher education in the manifestoes at the Brexit-obsessed 2019 genera election. But whatever room is left is likely to be filled with a mix of rehashed promises from last time around (for example, the abolition of tuition fees and the reintroduction of maintenance grants in Labour’s manifesto) and some entirely new ones.

I am a little reluctant to speculate on what the new ones might be in such a public way – and when any speculation may well turn out to be entirely wrong in  just a few days’ time…

Finally, it is also worth remembering that the biggest higher education policies tend not to feature in election manifestoes at all. That was true of :

  • Tony Blair’s introduction of tuition fees;
  • Tony Blair’s tripling of tuition fees;
  • David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s tripling of tuition fees; and
  • George Osborne‘s abolition of maintenance grants.

So the wisest course of action is neither to assume that a manifesto’s promises will be delivered nor that they are anything like the entirety of what is likely to happen between one election and the next.

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