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What role will higher education play in the next general election?

  • 18 February 2023
  • By Beth Craigie and Dr Daniel South

By Beth Craigie (Public Affairs and Policy Manager, University of East London) and Dr Daniel South (Public Affairs and Policy Officer, University of East London)

At the end of last month, we hosted members of the Lighthouse Policy Group at the University of East London’s University Square Stratford campus for a programme of lively and enlightening sessions about all things higher education. With presentations from UEL’s Professor Bugewa Apampa, Professor Julia Davidson OBE, Dr Michelle Morgan and Robert Gordon University’s William Hardie, the day’s conversations took in a breadth of topics including institutional equity, the Online Safety Bill, and the cost-of-living crisis. In a closing members’ discussion, we noted that higher education is connected to all of the big political topics of our moment, but rarely seems to be acknowledged by politicians as such. As important as apprenticeships and admissions are, politicians must recognise that universities are affected by and affect a far wider pool of issues. Universities have a huge role to play in Research and Development, the NHS, levelling up and further national priorities. Yet if higher education does not appear to be an immediate priority in these discussions, is there perhaps also an opportunity for the sector to set out its stall in fresh terms, and make a claim for our importance to this moment?

Policy professionals at universities across the UK will be hoping so, and with a general election now guaranteed to be under two years away thoughts will be turning to manifesto pledges and key campaign issues. A few weeks ago, we attended an event hosted by Public First and their partners Pearson about preparing for the next election. It was one of those rare events where with each speaker you find yourself frantically writing down their valuable answers that form neat but substantive soundbites. The speakers were representatives from the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats, with each in turn presenting on what they believe the future holds for the UK government. There was a notable mix of confidence and resignation across the presentations that our next elected government will be a Labour one. Of course, having followed polling since the disastrous mini budget last September where Labour held a massive 33-point lead over the Conservatives, it didn’t come as a huge surprise that Labour are hopeful and the Tories are nervous. But the relative certainty of victory across the board struck us both, especially as public debates rage on about whether Rishi Sunak can pull off a 1992-style victory for the Conservatives.  

Either way, we inevitably found ourselves wondering what role higher education will play in these parties’ campaigns – if any. Might we be entering a golden age of policy reminiscent of Blair’s flagship ‘education, education, education’ era, when spending on education rose by over £5 billion (in 2020/21 prices) within his first term? Or will we be stuck in Groundhog Day, recycling the same ideas, with successive governments underinvesting and kicking the can down the road on issues like tuition fees? The former outcome is clearly unlikely. Despite the lack of resource for universities being compounded by a continued fee freeze, the next government will be aware that there is little money for universities – even if no one leaves a note for their successor this time. 

As alluded to, however, we believe that universities are in prime position to make the case for their centrality to the next election’s big issues, and advocate for fresh approaches. Three of Rishi Sunak’s recently announced ‘five pledges’ focus on the economy, and inevitably the Conservative campaign will centre on the country’s finances. Floated policies in the education space – such as making Maths a compulsory subject to 18 and a continued emphasis on STEM-based technical education – fit neatly into the narrative these pledges set out. As the UK faces a lack of productivity and economic growth (making us an outlier in the G7), other policies such as those outlined in the Skills and Post-16 Education Act (2022) run the risk of becoming easily jettisoned. In this environment, the sector will need to take what we can (the recent first reading of the Lifelong Learning Bill will have been welcomed by many), but also make the case that further reforms are vital to economic growth in the long-term.

As for Labour, their Education pledges look set to focus on early years provision(again, perhaps framed as a productivity issue), and promises on training nurses and doctors. The party’s higher education policies, however, seem to be still forming – and along familiar lines. Speaking at a recent Institute of Government and Public Policy event, Matt Western (Shadow Minister for Higher Education) gave a nod to the Lifelong Loan Entitlement being adopted by Labour as a policy, while acknowledging that the current timeframe remains unrealistic, and the implementation challenging. Apprenticeship teaching, changes to STEM education to aid growth targets and delivering on policies as part of the Skills and Post-16 Education Act were also all mentioned. But, it seems, concrete policies to tackle the huge and ever-growing issues that remain within the higher education sector are as yet absent. Those policies that did get a mention were again framed in terms of economic growth. This was no surprise – although Keir Starmer is yet to confirm the missions that Labour will build their manifesto on, his New Year speech revealed that they will introduce ‘a new “Take Back Control” Bill […] that will deliver on the demand for a new Britain. A new approach to politics and democracy. A new approach to growth and our economy.’ The need for economic growth has been strongly linked with clean power generation by Labour, and much has been made of the Party’s attempts to court business in this area. We must make sure that higher education institutions have a seat at the table too, and are recognised as drivers of research and innovation to help meet ambitious targets for green energy. Giving local communities’ control over decision-making has also been mentioned by Labour, which provides an excellent opportunity for universities – as regional anchors – to help drive local economies.

Hopefully, as the next election approaches, universities will be able to play a role beyond the culture wars and be seen as central to policy success. New polling from the UPP Foundation and HEPI shows that 77% of respondents agree universities are important to research and innovation, and 57% agree they are important to the UK economy as a whole. We are hopeful that we can count politicians among those numbers.

  • HEPI’s most recent report on student voters and the difference (or not) that they made at the 2019, 2017, 2015 and 2010 general elections is here.

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