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Seven Takeaways from the Tory Conference

  • 6 October 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

There has been no shortage of education events at this week’s Tory Party Conference – mainly on the fringe programme but with a little education action in the main auditorium too.

No one could have gone to all of the education-themed events, as some have overlapped, but here are some of the more notable points.

  1. Some of the biggest issues facing the higher education sector do not seem to have had a mention. There may have been lots of mentions of free speech and culture war issues as well as the issue of in-person versus remote teaching. But I have heard not one mention of the likely strike action that could seriously hamper UK universities in the months ahead, even though it could conceivably turn out to be the biggest disruptor of higher education in 2021/22. I also didn’t hear anything about some previous ministerial hobby horses, such as PQA (post-qualification admissions or is it applications?), despite a commitment to ‘accelerate’ it being the crunchiest single announcement in Gavin Williamson’s last speech as the Secretary of State.
  2. At the education fringe events, there were also surprisingly few explicit mentions of the forthcoming spending review. That is perhaps understandable for – as Greg Clark MP (Chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee) told the National Academies fringe event on R&D spending – the details of the review could remain up in the air until just a day or two before it is published on 27 October. It is still notable, however, given that in just three weeks’ time, we are likely to be talking about little else. The spending review was the shadow that hovered over the whole Conference but, much of the time, people seemed to want to pretend it wasn’t there. 
  3. There was also little mention of the (England-only) Augar report, at least after Sir Philip Augar’s appearance at a Policy Exchange fringe event on Sunday, despite the idea of a review being first announced in Theresa May’s speech in the same city four years beforehand. But notwithstanding the comment above about the spending review, there were lots of mentions – mainly negative – of the other big higher education announcement from Theresa May’s 2017 Conference: the raising of the student loan repayment threshold. For example, at HEPI’s own event with the UPP Foundation David Willetts pushed the idea of reducing the threshold to around £21,000, back to where it was originally set when £9,000 pounds fees were new.
  4. Nadhim Zahawi’s speech in the main hall was very brief for a Cabinet Minister’s main address, running to just 10 minutes or so. But it was enough to emit some positive messages. When he asked for the audience to clap the University of Oxford for its vaccine success, which they willingly did, it felt like something of a positive recalibration of the relationship between the Government and the higher education sector – though time will tell if it is right to interpret it that way.
  5. If the Conference is anything to go by, it’s worth watching out for Alex Burghart, the new Minister for Skills (for England), from among the new group (is there a collective noun for politicians?) of junior Ministers. At a Centre for Social Justice fringe event on skills, he delivered a remarkably relaxed and confident – and seemingly extempore – speech, with moments of self-deprecating humour but also seriousness. He had an impressively long list of official initiatives designed to raise people’s skills down pat. You would not have guessed he has only been in the job a few days and, as someone who has worked in Number 10, he should know how to get things done. Given some important higher education responsibilities fall within his brief, including widening participation and the student experience, his role will clearly matter to higher education institutions as well as others. During the Conference, he got to announce the banning of essay mills as part of the continuing tweaks to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill currently before Parliament.
  6. There was notably more presence by senior figures from individual universities than in the past, including a smattering of vice-chancellors and their policy staff, while some of the groups that represent universities were less evident than usual or possibly not formally present at all. It is probably fair to say there were more representatives of modern universities (including obviously at the event MillionPlus held, which Michelle Donelan spoke at) than research-intensive universities – though the latter were represented too (for example, by Nancy Rothwell and Andy Westwood from the University of Manchester and both Manchester and Sheffield hosted their own events). Those senior managers who were present and had speaking roles made a good fist of showing that universities already do many of the things policymakers tend to say they want to see more of – Helen Marshall, Vice-Chancellor at Salford, and Graham Baldwin, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, for example, both had lots of examples of universities working directly with local employers to support their needs.
  7. Anyone who wants to understand the higher education sector’s detractors would have been wise to have listened in to the Conference events. From John Penrose MP (Chair of the Conservative Policy Forum), who laboured his one point about the apparent benefits of using earnings outcomes as a measure of course quality at a ResPublica event, to a meeting hosted by the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) and the TaxPayers’ Alliance, where a dig at vice-chancellors’ pay received a loud round of applause, there was plenty of criticism. But look below the surface and you could see the critics were far from united. For example, at the IEA event, the panellists couldn’t agree if the purpose of university should be to provide a small minority of people with an exclusively liberal arts education or whether more people should go but every student should have work experience embedded within their course to make them super-employable.

Recent work by HEPI and the UPP Foundation shows that two-thirds of people have not visited a university campus for at least five years and many of them have never done so. The Conference shows that much of the sector has responded by meeting policymakers in their natural habitat of a party conference but it also shows there is still a huge job to do to persuade many people, particularly activists of the party in power, of the benefits the sector provides the country.

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