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Comparing the Conservative leadership candidates’ pledges on higher education

  • 17 August 2022
  • By Josh Freeman

Josh Freeman is a graduate in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the London School of Economics and has recently completed the Teach First programme teaching Politics. He is currently undertaking an internship at HEPI.

There are three weeks to go in a Conservative leadership contest that has offered up bold policies, u-turns, and plenty of hostile briefing. On 5 September 2022, we will find out whether the Tory membership have plumped for Liz Truss, who has pitched herself as ‘the education Prime Minister’, or Rishi Sunak, who says education is the ‘closest thing we have to a silver bullet’  for improving people’s lives. They have made sweeping policy commitments on university admissions, low-earning degrees, vocational education and free speech. So what have the candidates said, and how might their policies be implemented?

Liz Truss

Truss has made fairness and justice the theme of her campaign. She has said that some schools – including, controversially, her own – have ‘low expectations’ which allow pupils to fail. With her education policies, Truss has vowed to give everyone the ‘same opportunities’ to succeed. Her higher education pitch included reforming the admissions process and increasing funding for vocational education.

Truss’s headline-grabbing proposal was to give all students who receive three A* grades an interview at Oxbridge. Her team then indicated that she planned a wholesale shift towards Post-Qualification Admissions (PQA), where students get their grades and only then apply to university. The Department for Education has long considered a shift to PQA; Gavin Williamson drew up proposals while he was Education Secretary, but the plans were dropped by Nadhim Zahawi when Williamson was sacked, apparently because the reforms were too complex.

As expected with a project as difficult as admissions reform, many details are yet to be established. Truss would certainly struggle to get a new system implemented before the next general election, due before the end of 2024. To give universities more time to process applications, Truss has suggested moving the university year to start in January. This would put England out of sync with much of the rest of the world, a potential turn-off for international students – though Australia, whose academic year already begins in January, is not struggling for applicants.

Her plans to give Oxford and Cambridge priority over top applicants are linked to social justice. She wants to give students a chance where their background, or school, might have put them off applying. Yet the idea may well infuriate Russell Group universities uncomfortable to see Oxbridge have priority over applicants with the top grades. Truss has already faced a rebuke from Cambridge for ‘interfering’ in its admissions process. In fact only 3,000 students received three top grades in 2019, the last time exams were sat, so the impact would probably be limited.

Truss’s other significant proposal was to review the ‘balance of funding’ between subsidised university fees and vocational training. We haven’t been given many details, but she might simply be indicating support for the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) already being prepared. The LLE aims to create parity between funding for vocational and university education by bringing all student loans within a single system. It will also guarantee all 18 year-olds four years worth of higher education funding regardless of the kind of institution they study at. The plans are due to come into effect in 2025.

Rishi Sunak

Sunak has promised to use education as a tool for economic modernisation. Among his policies is a pledge to make studying English and Maths compulsory until age 18, styled as a ‘British Baccalaureate’, to catch up with other major economies where a broader range of subjects is typically studied. In practice, this would bring A-Levels closer to the International Baccalaureate (IB) currently available in a small number of UK schools.  For the IB, students must study Maths and English (or their country’s home language), as well as a wider range of subjects including a foreign language and the humanities.

Like Truss, Sunak has also waded into the debate on vocational study with a focus on making education high quality. He wants to create a ‘Russell Group’ of technical colleges. In this Sunak acknowledges an important gap in ‘esteem’ between a university education, which is overwhelmingly desired by parents, and a technical one. The new group, he hopes, might make vocational education a more glamorous option for young people. But the Russell Group was created by its original members; it was not a top-down creation of government. It remains unclear how a Prime Minister could establish a comparable group for colleges and then ensure it delivers the same sort of prestige as the Russell Group has come to have. Sunak also vowed to come after low-value courses which ‘saddle students with debt’ and do not improve students ‘earning potential’. Exceptions would be made for some subjects, such as Nursing, with a high social value. In many respects, this sounds like a continuation of the Office for Students’ existing approach.

In an announcement less welcome among some educators, Sunak also indicated support for the Freedom of Speech Bill currently in the House of Lords. The Bill will make universities and student unions legally accountable for cases of so-called ‘no-platforming’, where a speaker is cancelled for his or her views, and define legal standards for free speech that universities must uphold. The Bill has been welcomed on the right but it may expose universities to bureaucracy and complex legal proceedings.

Truss and Sunak will need to show they are taking young people’s concerns seriously if they are to win them over. Of the two, Sunak’s proposals are perhaps the more detailed. Truss has begun consulting with civil servants to add meat to her plans, so we may not have to wait long for a clearer idea of how they might be implemented. Yet neither candidate has provided any solutions or even acknowledged the huge challenges facing the higher education sector around funding, research and industrial action, among others. Whoever wins in September, and whoever they appoint to the higher education brief, will have lots to do.

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