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The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

24-Hour Party People Carnt Smile*

  • 9 October 2023
  • By Nick Hillman
  • HEPI Director Nick Hillman takes a look at the first 24 hours of the Labour Party Conference when it comes to higher education.

It was a brief one-day visit for me this year to the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, but I was there long enough to sense that there was a new mood afoot: the crazy Judean People’s Front leafleteers that used to congregate along the Brighton seafront were less numerous (albeit not completely absent).

Largely gone too was the lack of confidence, at least when it comes to thinking about future electoral success: the Labour parliamentarians I spoke to seemed confident, for example, of a big victory in the Tamworth by-election on the back of the by-election win in Scotland last week. But this was balanced by a fear of looking over-confident or smiling too much; it all reminded me of nothing so much as the 2009 Conservative Party conference.

And there was still arguably a lack of confidence in terms of bold policies. If it is the case that the Government is getting the really big questions wrong, it would be good to know more about what the main alternative looks like. There was no shortage of people to tell shadow ministers what the future should look like but that has been true for the past 14 years, since Labour last lost office, and some – though not all – attendees were clearly frustrated by the remaining lack of detail about what might actually follow a Labour general election victory.

Conference started for me with the Public First / Wonkhe drinks. Such gatherings always have a slight bunker mentality when they are held at the Tory Conference, given the natural soft-left tendencies of many (not all) people who work in UK higher education policy. At Labour’s Conference, however, it tends to be much more relaxed. This was certainly true this year.

There was lots of sociable mixing but perhaps someone should have recorded the musings at the one table where the handful of vice-chancellors ended up gathering themselves together, as no doubt lots of wise things were said – after all, this was day one and the quality of party conference conversations tends to deteriorate as the week goes on. (By the way, the collective noun for a group of vice-chancellors gathered in this way is, apparently, ‘a suit‘.)

It is traditional to burn the candle at both ends during party conference season, so after the evening’s convivial drinks it was an early start to attend a private event hosted by the effective access organisation, NEON, led by the amiable, committed and energetic Graeme Atherton.

I won’t break confidences by revealing what was discussed but I will say the university representatives around the room all expressed a willingness to help any post-election government tackle the nation’s challenges. Meanwhile, the access champions all reminded us of their important work, the shortage of funding and the personal challenges still faced by so many young people.

For my part, I asked whether the forthcoming 60th anniversary of the Robbins Report – which takes place a fortnight today – might offer a good policy hook for those who want to see more students. (Watch this space!) That would certainly draw a distinction with the current Government, who last week continued to oppose Tony Blair’s 50 per cent target for higher education participation – which seems an odd thing to oppose given it was surpassed long ago.

(Indeed, the oddest feature of the gathering in Manchester last week when it comes to higher education was the contrast between the digs at universities from the main stage and the practical policies announced – so we had new medical school places alongside a lot of anti-student rhetoric and extra research funding alongside negative science-is-woke rhetoric.)

In terms of HEPI’s own involvement at this year’s party conferences, we hosted a very similar panel session at each of the two really big party conferences, Conservative and Labour, with support from the universities of Birmingham, Sussex and Sheffield Hallam, on what the next election’s manifestos should say on higher education and research. We had the same title, some of the same speakers, similar timings and so on. And as always, the conversation gratifyingly veered off in a completely different direction.

At our Labour fringe event this morning, for example, there was lots of talk about industrial action (and the UCU), of whether universities should have a duty of care towards their students and of whether Wales’s approach to tertiary education should have relevance to England, none of which was much discussed in Manchester last week – at least within my earshot (each person’s journey through the behemoth that is a party conference tends to be different). Do get in touch with us if you would like to hear the recording of either or both of our party conference events.

After the HEPI event, the higher education policy caravan moved on to the Public First and Progressive Britain event at The Tate, where some fascinating new polling was published on views about student finance – showing, yet again, that most people are pretty rational about such issues. The results show there are pros and cons with fees, people are worried about student living costs and apprenticeships are a popular concept.

The idea of ‘a tertiary strategy’ also kept coming up again and again, as did the idea of bringing back student maintenance grants. In contrast, the option of increasing fees was only mentioned once – and that was at the very end by someone pointing out that it had not been discussed.

There’s more than half of the Labour Conference left but my final thought for now, as so often when I attend any party conference, is that our politicians are often attacked for the wrong things. They are often, for example, said to be lazy. But it is very hard to attend a party conference and then take that critique seriously. Just thinking about the number of speaking engagements a front bencher will typically squeeze into a conference day without complaint would make some people tired – and that’s before you think about the receptions and formal speeches that they also need to attend. A party conference gathering provides a great opportunity to lobby politicians directly if that’s what you want to do, which is why so many universities were out in force – but how much the MPs remember of what they hear after they have returned, completely exhausted, to Westminster is anyone’s guess!

* When you enter Liverpool, you pass a sign that says ‘MUSIC CITY’. Both of this year’s venues for the big party conferences, Manchester and Liverpool, can lay claim to that badge of honour. To explain my title, the full name of the album in question is  ‘Squirrel and G-Man Twenty-Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out)’ – hence the erratic spelling.

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