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Politics, elections and higher education (Nick Hillman’s speech to the University of Bradford’s Board of Governors)

  • 20 October 2023
  • By Nick Hillman

It is great to be back in Bradford. Thank you for inviting me. I have visited a few times since becoming HEPI’s Director 10 years ago. The other day I looked back to what I said to you during my first visit, at the end of the 2014/15 academic year (in July 2015) – in case you are counting, that is four Prime Ministers, six Ministers for Universities and eight Secretaries of State for Education ago.

It was a different world back then, with a newly elected Conservative-majority Government. But we could nonetheless see clearly some of what was coming down the track towards us. On that occasion, I spoke to you about:

  • the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework;
  • the removal of student maintenance grants;
  • the possibility of Brexit; and
  • the ending of student number controls.

None of these things had yet happened but they were all in gestation.

Some other things we have been living with, however, such as the replacement of Hefce with the Office for Students, putting universities – against their will – slap bang in the middle of a culture war and moving responsibility for teaching and learning policy back into the Department for Education were not yet known about.

We are at a different point in the political cycle today to where we were when I spoke to you back then. Now, we have a general election approaching rather than having just had one. And it is this impending election which is going to dominate the lives of HEPI and every other policy-focused think tank for the next 12-to-15 months.

Wars of the Roses

I hope you will forgive me for starting by talking about events that occurred over the border in the historic county of Lancashire while I am here in Yorkshire … but I spent last week in Liverpool and the one before in Manchester attending the two biggest party conferences, which set the scene for the next political year.

I am one of those odd people who rather enjoy the party conferences and attended my first one nearly 25 years ago. So I can tell you that this year’s Labour conference resembled the Conservative one of 2009 in terms of the level of confidence among political activists that change is coming, while this year’s Conservative conference felt a bit like the Labour one of 2007, which was full of uncertainty over whether Gordon Brown would call an election – only this time the uncertainty was on whether HS2 would get built or not.

As well as being redolent of the past, this year’s conferences were slightly odd events when it came to higher education. The strangest feature of the Conservative gathering in Manchester was the contrast between the digs at universities from the main stage and the practical new policies that were actually announced: we had new medical school places alongside a lot of anti-student rhetoric and extra research funding alongside some negative science-is-woke rhetoric. The problem with this is that it sends a confused message, both to any Tory-inclined voters who want to kick universities and to any Tory-inclined voters who rather like them.

At the Labour Conference in Liverpool, the main problem was that firm new ideas were hard to find. My fear is the Opposition will take too long to lay out their alternative stall, including on higher education. Ed Miliband made that mistake and then had to resort to unwise gimmicks like the Edstone and visiting that recently discredited comedian’s kitchen to talk about lower tuition fees.

The other risk of maintaining policy vagueness is that, if you rise to power without a firm programme, parliamentarians will cause more havoc than if you say in advance what you plan to do. The House of Lords for example, will let firm manifesto promises sail through but other policies can very easily become bogged down there thanks to the Salisbury Convention.

Dear Prudence

One idea we did hear, however, in Liverpool was a promise by Bridget Phillipson, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, in her main conference speech to ‘change the way students pay for their time at university’. It is not exactly clear what this means but, when set alongside other statements she has previously made, it has been interpreted as signalling changes to the student loan repayment terms, including reversing some of the most recent changes implemented this autumn.

Some people have tried to experiment with what this might mean in practice: for example, last week Mark Leach of Wonkhe, whose previous job was advising another Labour shadow education minister, wrote a thoughtful piece that argued reintroducing a real rate of interest rate on student loans would – on its own – raise enough money to pay for:

  • a maintenance package indexed to the living wage; and
  • an end to the parental contribution for students’ living costs; and
  • a cut to the student loan repayment rate to 8% of salary; and
  • an increase of £2,500 per student on the teaching grant; and
  • a £500 per-student mental health fund; and
  • a rise in the repayment threshold to the median graduate salary.

In my view, we shouldn’t lull ourselves into thinking any such windfall is around the corner. If something is too good to be true, then it probably is. I don’t know anyone who has ever had to deal with Treasury civil servants during a tough spending review who thinks anything like this sort of package is at all likely. And Rachel Reeves is on a mission to show she would be a fiscally responsible Chancellor of the Exchequer, so she is very unlikely to think anything even vaguely resembling this is prudent.

A new graduate tax?

One particular idea that refuses to die is converting the student loan system into a graduate tax. It was discussed a lot on the fringes of the recent Labour conference, for example. But to me it seems like a red herring. The undergraduate funding model we have includes the positive features of income tax, such as income-contingent payments, while rejecting the more problematic ones, like the fact that you cannot levy a tax on graduates who move abroad to work. So there are very good reasons why, each time the idea of a graduate tax floats to the surface, it rapidly sinks back down again.

Another wheeze currently being floated is slowly ‘moving towards’ a graduate tax by, initially, ‘preventing better off parents from escaping interest by paying [tuition fees] upfront’. In other words, it would become compulsory to borrow money from the Government to fund your own higher education. But no fiscally responsible and cash-strapped Treasury is going to force well-off people to take out publicly subsidised loans to pay for something they can easily afford to buy themselves upfront – and such a scenario could produce further problems for those Muslim students who do not feel the current loan system fits with their beliefs.

So call me unimaginative but, if it were me, I would leave such high-falutin’ ideas behind and concentrate on two things:

  1. first, increasing students’ maintenance support which has, shamedly, not kept up with anything like inflation, at least in England, leading to a much higher proportion of students than ever before having to undertake levels of paid employment that disrupt their academic work – I won’t say more about this now because we will be saying much more about it next week; and
  2. secondly, lobbying for an increase in the unit-of-resource for teaching each home student, either by re-linking tuition fees to inflation or bolstering the teaching grant that flows through the Office for Students – or both.

Protecting autonomy

There’s one other risk of moving to a graduate tax that we should address too: it would almost certainly mean universities being designated as part of the public sector, thereby foregoing all the advantages that come from institutional autonomy.

Autonomy was hard won and should not be easily given up, yet it has been under threat in various ways and from all sides in recent times – do you remember, for instance, a couple of years ago when some people were calling for the Government to take over the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) when it was regarded as being in deficit? That would have brought universities much closer to government and you can bet your bottom dollar that, if it had happened, the Government would now be happily eyeing up the USS surpluses that have since arisen.

Some will say that England’s Office for Students is currently trampling on autonomy, and that debate has raged on the HEPI website as much as anywhere else. There is something in that critique, but anyone who doubts the benefits accruing from the unrivalled level of autonomy still enjoyed by English universities should read the recent piece on ‘Florida under DeSantis’ by Darcie Fontaine in the London Review of Books.

Or closer to home, we can think back to Margaret Thatcher’s attacks on Peace Studies here at Bradford. You survived that attack thanks to your autonomy and the Department went from strength to strength – it was great to watch it celebrate its recent 50th anniversary. As conflicts rage in the Ukraine, in the Middle East and, perhaps soon (God forbid) in Taiwan, perhaps Peace Studies will come to be valued like never before. Autonomy needs to be constantly cherished and constantly used to your own institutional advantage.

Robbins revisited

Next Monday marks the 60th anniversary of the Robbins report, perhaps the key treatise on post-war higher education policy. It is the document, for example, that ensured Bradford Institute of Technology became the University of Bradford.

The Robbins Report also introduced the all-important Robbins Principle that ‘courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.’ The broad acceptance of the Robbins Principle ensured the mass expansion of higher education throughout Britain.

We have marked this important approaching anniversary with a new HEPI Policy Note, The Robbins Report at 60: Essential facts for policymakers today, as well as by multiple blogs by leading figures in higher education. These show that, while the influence of the Robbins Report is sometimes misunderstood, its impact has endured. When I worked in Whitehall a decade ago, we even leveraged the Robbins Report’s half-century to shift the Treasury into accepting the removal of student number caps in England.

No caps!

Some people continue to disapprove of that decision, and it has clearly worked out better for some institutions than others. But it was essential because, beforehand, there were – quite literally – hundreds of thousands of people applying to higher education in each year’s admissions cycle who were failing to find a place.

I find it odd to hear leading Conservatives oppose the idea that 50 per cent of young people should go to higher education when that milestone was surpassed a few years ago under a Conservative Government and when I suspect the Prime Minister, like me, expects 100 per cent of his own family to enrol in due course.

It is equally bizarre to hear those on the other side of the political spectrum, such as the UCU, flirt with the idea of reimposing student number caps. They tell us the whole university sector is awash with cash, yet they also tell us that there is so little money to satisfy the unprecedented demand for higher learning that we must demand politicians save us from ourselves by forcing us to turn qualified applicants down.

To reject the Robbins Principle today – when the number of 18-year olds is growing fast, when aspirations levels are running high, when employers can’t find the skills they need and when the country is much richer than it was 60 years ago – would be as crazy as removing your University Title and making Bradford a College of Advanced Technology once more.

Social Mobility Index

This is because higher education continues to change lives, and nowhere is that more obvious that here in Bradford. I am pleased to be able to tell you that your institution has topped the 2023 English Social Mobility Index, produced by LSBU and published by HEPI, which has just come out.

The Index marks both how far an institution’s students travel in their lives and how many of their graduates move large distances. It is quite the achievement to come top once, but you have done so repeatedly. While all league tables have their pros and cons, I hope this one will remind policymakers that our higher education sector has strength in breadth, with different universities fulfilling different missions. After all, the real purpose of such league tables is to get people talking about the fundamentals and I am delighted that the 2023 Index has done precisely that.

While the LSBU / HEPI Social Mobility Index is a measure of English institutions and focuses on home students, I am also very conscious that here in Bradford you offer great social mobility to those from other countries too and also that, for example, the diversity reflected by your elected student union officers is something from which the whole sector could learn.

The economic benefits to Yorkshire of such diversity are great too. The last time we calculated it, we found that international students in the three Bradford parliamentary constituencies are worth over £225 million to the UK and, over the country as a whole, the benefits amount to £42 billion. So we must all hope that the Home Office’s latest changes to the rules on international students do not hit universities like Bradford as hard as we fear they might.

Election 2024

Let me end with some more thoughts about the electoral cycle we have just entered. As a sector, we should all be working hard to educate those writing the next set of election manifestos, which is why we have recently published three vice-chancellors’ manifestos outlining a range of smart ideas for the future.

There is almost certainly still time to do this. There are some crazy, almost conspiratorial, ideas around in our sector suggesting an election could be just around the corner. Last week, I read a message from a well-respected higher education commentator that predicted ‘things get even worse for Sunak and at some point he’s instructed to get the election over with to save the skin of MP x or y’. But it remains entirely unclear to me who would be doing the instruction in such scenarios.

I could be wrong, but my advice would be: we should not bank on an early election. Governing parties with secure poll leads tend to go the country after four years – as in 1983, 1987, 2001 and 2005. But parties that are less certain of victory tend to go towards the end of their full five-year term – as in 1964, 1979, 1992, 1997 and 2010. So the election is almost certainly a year or more away.

The jury is still out on whether that means a late 2024 election or an early 2025 one. Two days ago, the Institute for Government said:

The principal benefit of a late election is, simply, time. A January 2025 election would give the government the maximum amount of time to deliver on its priorities and prepare a campaign. Economic forecasts suggest this is when the economy will be performing best and will leave the longest possible gap between the period of very high inflation and polling day. 

Either way, the 2024/25 academic year may well have started by the time the next election occurs and the very earliest that tuition fee levels, say, could be changed is 2025/26 – although I know from my own time in Whitehall helping introduce £9,000 fees between 2010 and 2012, that in practice big changes take a minimum of two years.

Some people have called for a major review of student funding or all of higher education or even of all tertiary education, rather than tweaks, but major reviews take a long time: the Augar Panel’s review of post-18 education was first mooted in 2017; they reported in 2019; and the Government responded in 2022. So if there were to be a new major review, it would almost certainly take a long time to affect us.

Change at a national level is slow and difficult, just as it can be at an institutional level – as we will be showing in a new report by Paul Woodgates slated for early November. And the framework in which you are operating will continue to be uncertain. So my advice at an institutional level is to stick with what you do best and to stick with what you want to do, rather than trying to second guess the politicians.

Let the evidence of your success convince the policymakers you are right rather than trying to fit what you do into a political framework that is liable to change at any moment. And as part of that, make sure you invite all the main parties’ election candidates for every local seat to campus to ensure they have a better understanding of what it is you do.

If there is one thing the last few years have shown us, it is that it would be wrong to devise an institutional strategy that reflects the priorities of any given Minister at any point in time, when the average tenure of Education Ministers in recent years has been shorter than a single academic year let alone a full degree course.

And my advice at a national level is that, as a sector, we need to go on showing that all the things politicians want to do, like levelling up, raising skills and delivering growth, simply cannot happen without universities of different shapes and sizes at their heart.

1 comment

  1. Albert Wright says:

    Once again, a very thoughtful and interesting piece that needs to be studied more carefully.

    I agree that the Labour Party (and the Conservatives) need to explain, before the next election, what their plans are for changes to the current method of funding, which should include taught post graduates as well as undergraduates.

    Regarding your comments on a graduate tax, “you cannot levy a tax on graduates who move abroad to work.” I think it is also true to say that with the present system, nor can you recover student loans from those who work abroad.

    I wonder if the Student Loan Company have any data on this? I would imagine the amount of unrecovered loans from British students who move abroad immediately after graduating could be substantial.

    It seems wrong and unfair that these students do not contribute to the cost of their undergraduate education. Perhaps there should be a way to rectify this?

    If they work abroad for UK registered organisations, perhaps their employers could deduct money from their salaries.

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