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Last-minute election musings

  • 12 December 2019
  • By Nick Hillman

This has been an odd election.

Many of the original expectations about it – such as the idea that the vote would be almost solely about Brexit or that the parties would eschew the leader-centric campaigning that didn’t work for Theresa May or that smaller parties would benefit from greater exposure – seem to have been largely false.

Frustratingly, for people interested in policy, the medium often took centre stage over the messaging and the policies. For example, there was far more debate over who would appear when and via which media – think ice blocks, Andrew Neil and Love Actually videos – than about education funding.

But the campaign was still interesting for how it did – and did not – relate to higher education. So here, to supplement our other election-themed work, is one final blog of five points on the election and higher education.

1. The issue of student votes was not as noticeable as in other campaigns, such as in the 2005, 2010 and 2017 elections. This was a tad unexpected, given the interest at the very start of the campaign in issues such as how the timing of the election relates to university term dates, as well as the lingering debate over the scale of the so-called Youthquake in 2017. Of course, this doesn’t mean the student vote is bound to be unimportant on the night. Look out for seats with lots of registered student voters like:

  • Bristol West, which the Greens hope to win on a huge swing from Labour;
  • Canterbury, which the Conservatives want to take back after unexpectedly losing it to Labour in 2017;
  • Southampton Itchen, which Labour want to take back after just losing it to the Conservatives in both 2015 and 2017; and
  • those student-heavy seats in Scotland with small (some very small) majorities last time.

2. There was little new on higher education policy. Anyone who had hoped the election would lead to interesting new higher education ideas being adopted would have been disappointed: the Conservative manifesto was vague to the point of uselessness in terms of signalling future higher education policies; the Labour and SNP manifestos said little new; and the Lib Dems, despite winning over a recent Universities Minister in Sam Gyimah, hid behind yet another review of higher education funding (as John Major did back in 1997 and Gordon Brown did in 2010). Yet, whoever wins, there could be some big changes around the corner, such as the possible reintroduction of student numbers caps, as I argue in a piece in today’s Times Higher.

3. Vice-chancellors seemingly jumped off the Labour ship but other staff as well as most students stayed on board. A number of vice-chancellors told me in private conversations and at HEPI events that they would not be voting Labour despite usually doing so. One told me he didn’t know a single other vice-chancellor voting Labour this time around. Given that students and, as far as we know from the relatively low-quality data (see chart below), staff were inclined to support Labour in similarly high proportions as in the past, perhaps thisis more evidence of a growing gulf between the outlook of senior managers and other staff / students?

4. The UCU strike over pay and pensions got less publicity than it would have done at another time. It was a previously an unknown question whether the timing of strike action at higher education institutions during an election campaign would raise or lower its profile. After a flurry of media stories on the first day of the strike, and despite a huge social media presence by those taking action, the dispute seemingly ended up as a smaller story than last time around. There was more than one reason for this, including a more united response from Universities UK members, but the strike coinciding with the election seems to be an important one. As industrial action is set to continue, however, this story is far from over.

5. Political science academics were more circumspect in their (collective) predictions. Many of the opinion polls in the election campaign pointed towards the two most likely outcomes being a hung Parliament or a Conservative majority and this verdict was replicated by the Political Studies Association’s survey of experts: ‘Half of the respondents forecast a Conservative majority while half predicted that the Tories would fall short.’ This was less clear than the verdict of similar research in the 2015 election, 2016 referendum and 2017 election, but on each of these three occasions the Political Studies Association survey called it wrong  (as one academic controversially noted last week in a HEPI blog). This time, by making two predictions of what might happen, the experts stand a higher chance of seeming to call it right. When making election predictions if not in everything else, you can apparently have your cake and eat it too…


  1. Pam Tatlow says:

    Surprising that Hepi / Nick didn’t spot the change of direction in Labour’s manifesto in addition to free tuition:
    – HE part of a National Education Service
    – End to marketisation
    – New role for OfS
    – New funding formula for teaching and research
    – New rights for adult learners
    – And no more TEF and REf in their current form

  2. Nick Hillman says:

    Thanks Pam, I think that may be fair if the comparator is the 2017 and earlier manifestos (although the NES was in Labour’s 2017 manifesto too don’t forget). I was thinking more about prior announcements, including those made since the last election, more than earlier manifestos and should perhaps have made this clearer. For example, some people expected the Labour manifesto at this election to make a clear statement about writing off some of the outstanding student loan book but it didn’t really do that.

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