Thanks to the Conservative leadership contest, which comes to the end of its tortuous journey later today when the new Prime Minister is announced, there has been high interest in the next Prime Minister’s attitudes towards higher education. That’s generally welcome, but it has unhelpfully taken the spotlight off what the Official Opposition, Labour, might do should they win the next election. Indeed, there appears to have been an inverse relationship between the level of interest in the Opposition’s policies and their poll ratings. As the former has gone down, the latter has gone up.
However, it is important to look at what Labour might do in office less because they are currently ahead in the polls (especially given the new PM might enjoy a poll bounce) and more because the next election is already approaching. It does not have to occur until January 2025, 28 months away, but no government likes to run out of road and be ambushed into holding an election at a time not of their own choosing. And as the Labour Party Conference hoves into view, it is expected that they will start putting some flesh on the bones of their policies. (In fact, just this weekend, in an extraordinary interview in the Daily Telegraph, Wes Streeting, the Shadow Secretary of State for Health, heavily implied a Labour Government would end the current cap on Medical students.)
So here are six thoughts about the areas any political party long out of office has to consider in relation to higher education policy. They are largely based, I admit, on my own experience working for a very different Opposition at Westminster in a very different era 15 years ago, but they are also of enduring importance.
1. The dilemma of timing. Once you know what you want your policy to be, if you announce it too early, you risk being overtaken by events. The phenomenon of other parties pinching your policies is well known, but there is also a bigger risk: that the wider political and economic environment simply changes so much that policies announced too early are exposed to the mercy of events. As Wonkhe pointed out before the summer hiatus, were the current Labour leadership to continue retaining Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to abolish tuition fees, they would find it has become a whole lot more expensive. This is because of the changes to student loan repayment terms, which will reduce the default rate (or RAB charge). In other words, if you announce your approach too early, you risk either standing still while the world moves on or else you need to perform an embarrassing and confusing u-turn. But on the other hand, if you wait and announce your policies too close to a general election, as Ed Miliband did with his £6,000 fees policy before the 2015 General Election, then you do not leave yourself sufficient time to convey them properly to the electorate before they vote. You are then left having to adopt desperate measures like dropping by Russell Brand’s house in the full glare of the media to seek his endorsement.
2. The risk of leaks or, worse, unhelpful speculation. Once you have started serious policy development, there is a risk things go off at half-cock. I well remember the upset caused to the Conservative Opposition when the Evening Standard ran a front page story in the run up to the 2010 General Election saying the party had decided to raise fees to something like £9,000. Although that is what ended up happening, it was not the policy at the time (not even internally) and it risked derailing the internal policymaking process by making people think it was. This sort of speculation is understandable and hard to avoid, and you cannot stop the media from doing it, but it is still a hindrance to policymaking because it makes it harder to be open with people about your thinking, and closed policymaking tends to be inferior to open policymaking (unless, of course, you are naming a boat).
3. The attractiveness (or otherwise) of contracting out your decision to third-party experts. This was very easy for the Conservative Opposition to do in 2009 when it chose to support the Browne review process, thanks – oddly but entirely – to the far left of the Labour Party. (Back in 2003/04, the far-left rebels who disliked Tony Blair’s Higher Education Bill introducing £3,000 fees forced New Labour to commit to an independent review of the higher fees – the Secretary of State for Education at the time was this weekend’s HEPI blogger the Rt Hon Charles Clarke, who told the House of Commons there would be ‘a review by an independent commission, reporting to Parliament directly on the impact of the new fee regime three years after implementation.’) In 2009, David Willetts and Peter Mandelson then cooked up the membership of the Browne review committee together (while also jointly agreeing not to invite the Lib Dems to join the party), and the process then helped both their political parties avoid tough challenges at the 2010 General Election. However, while any party can host a review at any time, I am not sure quite the same option is on offer to Labour today as was on offer from Peter Mandelson to the Conservatives in 2009/10 or indeed from Gillian Shephard to New Labour back in 1996/97, when the Dearing review was put in train. This is because those currently in charge do not seem to have any great appetite for yet another review of higher education finance – not after the painful experience they have had in trying to respond to the Augar report. (We still don’t know the outcome of the post-Augar consultation begun in February.) So while there seems to be a growing consensus among some commentators that the Opposition might go down the route of an external review, I am not sure the precedents are anything like as clear as some people think.
4. The risk of taking student voters for granted. When I was a candidate at the 2010 General Election in the student seat of Cambridge, the Lib Dems swept all before them. On election day, the (substantial) majority between the winning Lib Dem and me as the runner up was smaller than the number of student voters. So it is highly plausible they determined the result. Back then, it sometimes felt like no one would ever break the appeal to students of Nick Clegg. But a few months later, you could barely find a single student to speak up for him. Today, Cambridge is a safe Labour seat, just as it was before the previous Labour MP for Cambridge, Anne Campbell, faced her own mess over tuition fees and succumbed to the Lib Dems at the 2005 General Election. We recently launched a poll on students’ attitudes towards free speech but there was one question we didn’t publicise on how students voted in 2019. Many of our respondents were too young to vote but, among those who told us how they voted in 2019, Labour were streets ahead of the other parties. (The results are in the spreadsheet here.) One might think that many university seats now have such big Labour majorities that losing some student votes would not matter too much, but Oppositions tend to be hungry for votes and are not generally keen to squander those that already look locked in. And as the Lib Dem story shows, it is not right to assume that students will always vote for one party whatever happens.
5. It is hard to discuss issues other than tuition fees – even when they are just as important. I can think of a number of other education issues that one might consider as important as the level of the headline tuition fee cap for full-time undergraduate students in England. For example, what should the parameters of the proposed new Lifelong Loan Entitlement look like if it is to be truly transformative? Or what do we do about the impact of the cost of living crisis on students? But these issues still do not have anything like the same political salience as the fee cap. The recent YouGov poll (see here) proved this once again: among the numerous questions on tuition fees, there was nothing on living costs or maintenance support. As anyone who follows us both on Twitter will know, it sometimes feels like there is very little that I agree with Jim Dickinson of Wonkhe on, but he is right to focus so much on the living costs that students are about to face and the often insufficient maintenance support they receive.
6. The realities of Government are different to the realities of Opposition. The former is about governing; the latter is about criticising those who are governing in the hope that people believe you could govern better. But after an electoral victory, the different vantage point you get from the corridors of power can make the world look very different. One of the oddest things about recent higher education policy is that, during the Theresa May years, the Labour Opposition at Westminster vehemently opposed high tuition fees in England while the Labour administration in Wales simultaneously introduced £9,000 fees. Even more amazingly, thanks in large part to the maintenance reforms introduced alongside, Welsh Labour managed to make the shift with the acquiescence, nay the support, of the Welsh student movement as well as the vice-chancellors of universities in Wales. Is this a model for what might happen in England under a future Labour Government – or does devolution mean it is unreasonable to treat the actions of the Welsh Labour Party as a guide to the potential actions of the Westminster Labour Party (particularly as the Barnett formula gives Cardiff more money to play with)? I don’t know. But we should perhaps pay as much attention to what Labour have done in office as to what they have said from Opposition.
This blog is loosely based on my remarks to a HEPI Dinner, co-hosted with Taylor and Francis and attended by Matt Western MP, the Shadow Minister for Higher Education, before the summer Recess.
Separately, I have recently argued here that the time might be right for the Labour leadership to consider a rapprochement with the mixed funding model they put in place during Tony Blair’s premiership.