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LIVE: The political parties’ manifesto commitments on higher education

  • 10 June 2024

The 2024 General Election is scheduled for Thursday 4th July. As the political parties release their manifestos, we will be analysing and discussing them here.

Here we focus on the largest UK-wide parties – the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Reform, and the Green Party – and two national parties, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru.

The one-pager below is a short, downloadable summary of the parties’ commitments. It will be updated as the manifestos are released. Further analysis is available below the summary.

Fees and funding

In its 2024 manifesto, the Conservative Party has made no new commitments in this area, suggesting they would keep the current model.

The Labour Party has moved away from its 2019 commitment to scrap tuition fees. In its 2019 manifesto, it declared that ‘higher education is in crisis’ and ‘the current higher education funding settlement does not work for the taxpayer, universities, staff, or students’. But is vague on detail, saying only that Labour will act to create a ‘secure future’ for higher education.

The Liberal Democrats have committed to a review of higher education funding, to take place in the next Parliament. (The most recent review of higher education reported in 2019.)

Reform would scrap interest on student loans, but would extend the repayment period to 45 years. Modelling from London Economics shows that increasing real interest rates would make the system more progressive – that is, higher-earning graduates pay much more than lower-earning graduates. This policy from Reform would therefore probably make the system less progressive, so higher- and lower-earning graduates pay similar amounts, with most paying off their loans in the 45-year window.

The Green Party would scrap undergraduate tuition fees entirely, and in the long run, would aim to cancel graduate debt.

Plaid Cymru has noted it has repeatedly raised the issue of university funding. It would work to make university free for all and would work with universities to make sure their provision is financially viable.

Research

The Conservative Party has pledged to, in the next Parliament: increase public spending to £22 billion a year, up from £20 billion; maintain research and development tax reliefs worth £280 million; continue to invest £1.5 billion in ‘large-scale compute clusters’, to support research into the safe uses of AI; continue with its Advanced Manufacturing Plan to secure strategic manufacturing sectors like automotive, aerospace, life sciences and clean energy; and build on its nine specialist ‘Catapults’ to further support innovation by distributing £1.6 billion of funding.

Labour has promised to scrap short funding cycles and replace them with 10-year budgets. It will has also committed to work to support university ‘spinout’ companies.

The Liberal Democrats have committed to continue participation in Horizon Europe, the EU’s R&D funding platform, which the UK rejoined in January 2024. They have pledged to join the European Innovation Council, an innovation programme targeting high-risk, high-reward ‘breakthrough’ technologies. They have called for 3% of GDP to be invested in R&D by 2030 and 3.5% by 2034, which builds on their target of 2.4% in their 2019 manifesto.

In 2019, Labour promised to spend 3% of GDP on research by 2030.

The Green Party have committed to spending £30 billion more on research by the end of the next Parliament. Additional spending would primarily be targeted at alleviating the climate crisis and focused in areas such as:

  • energy storage;
  • agroecological agriculture and soil health;
  • re-use, repair, recycling and designing out waste;
  • carbon neutral construction;
  • carbon-neutral production; and
  • carbon capture technology.

Green MPs will also push for partnership with universities and Global South institutions to alleviate climate change.

Plaid Cymru would increase investment in R&D and would seek to devolve responsibility for R&D funding in Wales to the Welsh Government.

International

The Liberal Democrats have committed to rejoin Erasmus+, which facilitates a range of travel and study opportunities across the EU. The UK left Erasmus when it left the EU in 2020, having rejected the option to join as an associated third country.

The Liberal Democrats have also committed to report international student flows separately from long-term migration. In practice, this is likely to make international students less likely to be caught up in debates about reducing the overall level of migration.

In line with the recommendations from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), the Conservative Party has kept the Graduate Route visa in its current form but will crack down on agents used to recruit international students.

Labour is yet to make significant manifesto promises on international students.

Reform would ‘Stop [the] backdoor route to immigration through [the] use of low quality degree courses.’ This might involve closing courses and/or restricting immigration options for students.

By contrast, the Green Party would allow international students to bring dependents. It would also give all of those on visas, including international students, to vote in elections and referenda.

Plaid Cymru supports retaining the Graduate Route visa.

Maintenance support

As they did in 2019, the Liberal Democrats have committed to bring back maintenance grants for disadvantaged students.

The Conservative Party, while in government, has raised maintenance loans in England in line with a prediction of inflation. However this has, in practice, fallen far below actual inflation, causing maintenance support to fall in real terms.

Labour has highlighted the financial challenges faced by students. In 2019, it promised to bring back maintenance grants. However, the current Labour leadership has stressed its financial responsibility and is unlikely to make big spending pledges in this area.

The Green Party has pledged to ‘fully fund every student’ (presumably to fully meet their living costs) and restore maintenance grants.

Non-traditional routes into higher education

The Conservative Party has championed alternatives to the traditional degree for school leavers, such as apprenticeships and degree apprenticeships. On 29 May, the Party pledged to cut 130,000 ‘low-quality’ higher education places, around one-eighth of the total, and spend the money on funding more apprenticeships.

The Conservative Party has also committed to ‘deliver’ the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE). The LLE, and the problems with implementing it, was discussed at length in this HEPI paper from 2023. The Conservatives would also expand adult skills programmes.

Labour would develop a comprehensive ‘post-16 skills strategy’ with a number of elements, including reform of the Apprenticeship Levy and the establishment of Skills England. But it is difficult to know how many of these will affect higher education. We are only told that the strategy will direct institutions on the role of providers, supporting students to move between institutions, and ‘strengthening’ regulation.

The Liberal Democrats have committed to create Lifelong Skills Grants for all adults worth £5,000 to spend on skills and training throughout their lives, with the hope these will later increase to £10,000.

The Greens commit to additional spending on lifelong learning but say this will be targeted at further education, rather than higher education.

Plaid Cymru would create new ‘flexible pathways’ into HE, including through short courses; and would create a new Lifelong Learning Allowance to support adults to undertake education and training throughout their lives.

Other

The Conservative Party has committed to scrap 130,000 ‘rip-off’ degrees, which it says will raise £910 million by 2030, to fund its apprenticeship pledge.

The Labour Party has a broad commitment to act to improve access to higher education.

The Liberal Democrats would create a statutory duty of care which higher education institutions must abide by, placing new legal obligations on institutions to look after students. It would ensure they continue to work to widen participation. It would also require them to be transparent about their selection criteria – perhaps building on a tool recently developed by UCAS to allow applicants to see the actual grades successful entrants to a programme receive.

Reform would implement student number caps to reduce the number of students to ‘well below current levels’ and enforce minimum entry standards. They would cut funding to universities that undermine free speech. They would also require universities to provide 2-year graduate courses, to help students enter employment more quickly and leave them with less debt when they graduate.

The Green Party also notes the challenges posed by the changes to employer contributions to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS) and commits to working with universities to address these.

Plaid Cymru would work to increase the number of students accessing higher education.

Links to the parties’ manifestos:

Conservatives

Labour

Liberal Democrats

Reform

Green Party

Plaid Cymru

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