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Mike Boxall, an independent researcher and consultant on higher education policies and strategies, and a senior adviser to PA Consulting, considers the emerging post-COVID world and its implications for the future of universities. His blog is based on a paper published recently by PA Consulting, and co-authored with its HE lead, Ian Matthias.
Higher education is proving to be an important electoral battleground as the general election approaches. With manifestos now published by the three main parties as well as the Green Party and UKIP, HEi-know examines their HE plans and where they stand on key policy areas.
Clear water exists between the parties on higher education policy: notably on the question of tuition fees. These policies could feature in potential coalition negotiations (though they may, as notoriously demonstrated by the Liberal Democrats in 2010, be traded away). Labour says too high a proportion of loans for fees at their present level will not be paid back, and fees must be lowered to ensure they are fairer to students; the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats say £9,000 fees have not deterred underprivileged students. Meanwhile, the Conservatives, with an eye on UKIP, have drawn overseas students into their immigration clampdown, while opposing parties say this move is damaging the UK’s £17.5 billion higher education export industry. University leaders have also been lobbying parties to protect science and research funding as concern grows over pressure on the future Department for Business Innovation and Skills budget. With less than four weeks to election day, here is an outline of the manifesto pledges relating to HE:
Tuition fees, student finance and related university funding
The manifesto makes no mention of the £9,000 fee cap but does confirm the £21,000 salary threshold for repayment. Universities minister Greg Clark said last September he was “not persuaded” by Russell Group arguments that fees need to rise at least in line with inflation. The manifesto points to the lifting of the student number cap and rising university applications, including among poorer students, as vindication of the coalition government’s fees and finance policy.
As hinted in a speech by Greg Clark a few months ago, there is a pledge to introduce a “framework to recognise universities offering the highest quality teaching”, but no details are provided.
The Conservatives will also “encourage” universities to offer more two year courses and require more data to be made available to potential students.
Science, innovation and research
The manifesto reaffirms the commitment to spend £1.1 billion a year on capital investment on research infrastructure (in real terms) between 2015/16 and 2020/21. It also reiterates the pledge in a recent science and innovation strategy document (see HEi-know Briefing Report 225) to make Britain the technology centre of Europe and the best place in the world to do science.
International (overseas student recruitment, visas, immigration)
Current Coalition policy states that international students can stay in the UK when they graduate if, within four months, they find a graduate-level job paying at least £24,000 a year. A proposal from Home Secretary Theresa May to scrap this bridging visa and require anyone who entered the UK on a student visa to leave the country once they finished their studies was heavily criticised by universities, business leaders, Labour and the Lib Dems. It was said in January to have been killed off by Chancellor George Osborne.
The manifesto states that the party “will reform the student visa system with new measures to tackle abuse and reduce the numbers of students overstaying once their visas expire”. The wording suggests Home Secretary Theresa May’s proposal has been taken on board.
A “clamp down” on the number of ‘satellite campuses’ opened in London by universities located elsewhere in the UK, is promised, as is a review of the highly trusted sponsor system for student visas.
Targeted sanctions will be introduced for colleges or businesses that fail to ensure that migrants comply with the terms of their visa.
Labour will cut tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000 a year, funded by restricting tax relief on pension contributions for the highest earners and by “clamping down on tax avoidance".
Shadow universities minister Liam Byrne has said Labour still ultimately favours a graduate tax in the longer term, and that it will “re-boot” access to HE.
The manifesto commits the party to “tackling” the growth of unpaid internships but does not give details on how.
A clear vocational route to higher education is promised with a new technical baccalaureate, leading on to apprenticeships and new Technical Degrees, which will be co-funded, co-designed and co-delivered by employers. The manifesto also pledges to support part-time study but does not say how.
The document does not explicitly mention student numbers but does say that technical degrees will be the "priority for expansion within the university system."
Post-graduate funding is not mentioned, although Byrne has said he wants it reviewed as a priority in the next parliament.
In a 2014 Science Green Paper (see HEi-know Briefing Report 172) Labour pledged to put science and innovation at the heart of a long-term plan for growth, but spoke of “making better use of existing resources”.
The manifesto makes no explicit commitment to protect the current science and research budget or to guarantee the £1.1b a year on capital investment in research infrastructure promised by the coalition up to 2021.
It does say that the party will introduce a new long-term funding policy framework for science and innovation to provide stability and continuity to companies and research institutes.
Labour has pledged to remove foreign students immediately from the net migration target.
Although Liam Byrne has indicated he would like to reinstate post-study work visas, there is no mention of them in the manifesto. Instead, it highlights the “dramatic” increase in short-term student visitor visas and promises to tighten the system to prevent abuse.
Despite famously promising to scrap tuition fees before the 2010 election, the Liberal Democrats now oppose Labour’s proposed fee cut, which they argue would only benefit higher-earning graduates and would harm universities. The party has said it would attempt to block a move to lower fees in any coalition negotiations, though Cambridge MP Julian Huppert has said he still ultimately favours abolishing tuition fees entirely.
A review of higher education finance is promised in the manifesto. It will cover undergraduate and postgraduate courses, with an emphasis on support for living costs for students, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Business secretary Vince Cable has indicated student maintenance grants could be one area at risk if cuts bite in his department, potentially becoming loans instead.
The manifesto promises the development of a “comprehensive credit accumulation and transfer framework” to help students transfer between and within institutions, enable more part-time learning, and help more people complete qualifications. An expansion of the number of degree-equivalent Higher Apprenticeships, is also pledged.
The Liberal Democrats joined the Conservatives in ring-fencing research infrastructure funding until 2021 and promising a focus on science and innovation. Vince Cable has said he favours a tax rise to protect science and research spending amid threatened cuts to the BIS budget.
The manifesto highlights an “aim” to double innovation and research spending, supported by greater public funding on a longer timescale, more ‘Catapult’ innovation and technology centres and support for green innovation from the Green Investment Bank. It also pledges to continue the Regional Growth Fund throughout the next Parliament.
The party would remove students from the net migration target, while taking “tough action” against institutions that allow abuse of the student route into the UK. It has gone further than the other parties by pledging a change to the post-work visa, albeit for a limited group. The party will reinstate post-study work visas for STEM graduates who can find graduate-level employment within six months of completing their degree.
The manifesto pledges to abolish tuition fees, cancel student debt issued by the Student Loan Company, reintroduce student grants, “support mature students and their families” and consider scrapping fees for postgraduate courses. The party says it would fill the funding gap resulting from ending fees through income gained from a clampdown on tax avoidance, which it estimates costs the exchequer £100 billion annually, and scrapping Trident.
The block grant to universities would be reintroduced. The party also pledges to end the “scandal” of vice chancellors paying themselves £300,000 a year by backing a ten-to-one ratio for campus pay, with the highest earner earning no more than ten times the salary of the lowest member of staff, including cleaners.
Universities would also be “encouraged” to divest from fossil fuel companies.
The Greens will ensure that adequate government funding goes to research on “major environmental issues” such as climate change, pollution and biodiversity less, and less is spent on military research.
The manifesto pledges to gradually increase public spending on scientific research from 0.5% of GDP to 1% over the next 10 years, to prevent research being controlled by big business.
It also promises to ensure that research is conducted ethically with regards to human and animal welfare.
All public funded research will be published freely.
The manifesto pledges no restrictions on foreign students and they will be allowed to work for two years after graduation.
UKIP will scrap the 50% target of school leavers going to university (in fact the now-achieved Blair-era target referred to under 30-year-olds). Students studying science, technology, maths or medicine will not be required to pay back their tuition fees on condition that they work in the disciplines and pay tax in the UK for at least five years after they complete their degree.
The party says it will fund the training of 8,000 more GPs, 20,000 more nurses and 3,000 more midwives.
It pledges to charge the 70,000 university students from other European Union countries studying in the UK (the number is actually substantially higher) the same amount in tuition fees as foreign students from non-EU countries, raising £600m per year. This policy would be illegal unless Britain left the EU.
The manifesto makes no explicit reference to science and research. Scientists have argued that leaving the EU (UKIP’s central policy) would cut off the UK’s lucrative funding stream from the European Research Council and damage British science.
The party says it will remove foreign students from immigration figures, though this is not mentioned in its manifesto. However, it would remove EU students’ right to stay on in the UK, making all overseas students leave the country after finishing their studies unless they found a job and were granted permission to stay.
International students will have to take out private health insurance rather than rely on the NHS.
UKIP will also review which educational institutions are eligible to enrol international students to prevent abuse of the system. The manifesto says colleges which do not report student absences will be barred from accepting international students.
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