This guest blog has been written by Dr Diana Beech, former higher education Policy Adviser to the last three UK Universities Ministers and current Head of Government Affairs at the University of Warwick (as well as HEPI’s former Director of Policy and Advocacy).
Like many people settling into a new job, I have been spending the past few weeks getting to grips with my new role: what it means, why it is important and how it fits into existing organisational structures.
Roles like mine in government affairs functions are becoming increasingly common in UK universities, as the sector realises it could do more, not only to shape the higher education policy landscape on which it relies, but also to help impart academic knowledge to policymakers across government for the benefit of wider society.
In many ways, starting work in a government affairs role in the midst of the pre-election period (or “purdah”) has been both a blessing and a curse. With parliamentary candidates out on the campaign trail, normal service has been suspended. So, there are no Members of Parliament (MPs) to influence and no new policies to be made.
On the plus side, this delayed start to my job means I have had ample opportunity to familiarise myself with my new working environment, not to mention take some much needed time to reflect on how I can best add value, both to my organisation and the higher education sector at large. And if anything has put a spring in my step for the new journey ahead, it is the realisation that there has probably never been a more important time in recent history for government affairs personnel in higher education.
Whatever the outcome of the General Election after 12 December, one thing is for certain: UK universities will be facing a future without many of their trusted allies in the House of Commons.
Of the Conservative MPs who have been in government in one form or another since 2010, a considerable number will not be taking their seats back in the chamber in the next parliament. This means that key parliamentarians, from backbenchers right through to cabinet ministers, who have traditionally supported universities and been vocal proponents of the current funding system will no longer be there to defend the sector’s corner.
Moreover, MPs on both sides of the House, who have come to understand the importance of universities to their own constituencies over the years, will be gone. A significant chunk of institutional memory will be lost. And arguments we thought we had won, or at least evaded, may well have to be reopened all over again, to a fresh parliamentary audience and, likely, a new set of critics.
Honouring the fallen
The past year has been particularly ruthless for Westminster politics – with MPs abandoning their traditional party lines in favour of their views on whether, and how, Parliament ought to honour the result of the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Most notably, the Brexit question has taken its toll on those MPs on which the sector has been most reliant.
A quick look at the damage shows us that former Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, who resigned from Theresa May’s Government before she was set to be moved over her opposition to the Post-18 Review (part of which because the “Augar Review”), has decided not to stand again for election. Following in her footsteps is another former Education Secretary and powerful advocate for her local university (Loughborough), Nicky Morgan.
Former Universities Ministers, too, have fallen victim to the Brexit conundrum. Jo Johnson, Higher Education Minister twice over and open critic of the Augar Review, has called time on his parliamentary career after finding himself “torn between family loyalty and the national interest”. And Sam Gyimah, the Universities Minister instrumental in ensuring that the role of university fees in cross-subsidising research was not lost from the Augar Review’s Terms of Reference, has broken ranks and is now standing as a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats in Kensington.
In other parties, we say farewell to Roberta Blackman-Woods, long-serving Labour MP for the City of Durham and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Universities. And in the Liberal Democrats, former Business Secretary in charge of higher education, Vince Cable, has also called it a day.
Universities’ governmental allies are fading fast. And with more than 70 MPs across the House having decided not to stand again for election, the Commons can expect to lose more than 1,000 years of parliamentary experience between them. A great deal of this would have been spent contemplating issues pertaining to higher education over the past decade – not least when tuition fees were trebled in 2012, student number caps lifted in 2015 and the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) 2017 passed through parliament, gathering over 500 amendments along the way.
As for what awaits us, we cannot assume the status quo. The rushed and centralised candidate selection procedures for both main parties in this snap General Election have ceded a great deal of power back to the parties’ headquarters from the local associations. This has increased the chances that the new Conservative MPs will all be ultra-loyal to Boris Johnson and his pledge to “get Brexit done”, while the politics of the new Labour MPs could be more attuned to those of Jeremy Corbyn than their more moderate peers. We are, therefore, likely facing a future where moderates on both sides of the House will be few and far between. For universities, this may well make it harder to make the case for continued involvement in European programmes or, indeed, the necessity for the current level of student fees.
The extent of these changes to the make-up of Parliament will not only affect the way higher education debates are handled nationally, but universities up and down the country will soon be faced with brokering new relationships with a fresh set of constituency MPs who are integral to representing them locally.
My own university, the University of Warwick, is a case in point. First, the two long-serving MPs of Coventry South and Coventry North West have decided not to stand for re-election, leaving new bonds to be formed with their successors. Secondly, the Warwick and Leamington constituency – home to many of the University’s students – is sure to feature as a key battleground in the race for Number 10. And third, what happens this week could have profound ramifications for the West Midlands mayoral election in May, with the vote for the left already showing signs of splitting. This means everything really is to play for here and elsewhere in the country – both for the candidates trying to gain votes, and the institutions trying to win their affections.
Although it may be impossible to predict the outcome of the General Election later this week, I can at least be sure that I will not be the only one scoping the parameters of my new job in the run up to Christmas. There will likely be numerous fresh-faced MPs doing the very same thing, not to mention numerous universities and government relations teams all vying, importantly, to get their attention.