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Interventionism is suddenly all the rage with the Westminster Conservative government, and higher education is feeling the impact as new policies and legislation are brought to bear on the sector, writes Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and of the Engineering Professors’ Council.
The higher education plans of the political parties have been outlined in their election manifestos. HEi-know asked HE commentators to assess the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of these plans from the sector’s point of view.
Million+ has identified Labour’s commitment to cut fees to £6,000 a year as a strength and a policy that could give non-traditional routes a major boost.
“We supported the £6,000 announcement because Labour has identified where the direct funding would come from,” said Pam Tatlow, the group’s chief executive. “We think it has the capacity to increase participation and encourage part-time study, which has been decimated since the introduction of £9,000 fees.”
According to Mike Finn, the director of the Centre for Education Policy Analysis at Liverpool Hope University, the policy has allowed Labour to put clear blue water between itself and the other parties and given it credibility with student voters, despite being the party that introduced tuition fees in the first place.
Support for science and research funding in the manifestos was reassuring, according to Baroness Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King’s College London.
“The parties are mostly pretty sensible about science and research, with no sign of plans to slash science spending,” she said.
The University Alliance welcomed the “recommitment” in the Conservative manifesto to lifting the cap on student number control?s.
Sam Jones, the group’s head of communication, also described the Liberal Democrat’s cautious approach to university finance and the setting up of a review within the next Parliament, as “actually quite sensible”.
According to Professor Wolf, all the manifestos suffer from the same weakness –a failure to address “the great big black hole” of university funding.
Professor Alan Smithers, the director of the centre for education the employment research at Buckingham University, agrees that the current model, defended by the Conservatives, has major problems.
“The student loan scheme, as presently constituted, is building up a massive amount of public debt which BIS is unable to forecast accurately,” he said.
The professor argues that the scheme could be rescued if the repayment threshold was lowered, and held but no party has been “brave enough” to make the adjustment in the run up to the General Election.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, described the Conservative manifesto’s wording on overseas students as “a big disappointment”.
He said: “Yet again, they are portrayed as a problem rather than a benefit to the UK. Theresa May seems to have comprehensively won the argument and there will be no red carpet laid down for students from abroad.”
Pam Tatlow, from Million Plus, agrees.
“The Tory ‘crackdown’ on campuses in London is worrying,” she said. “The general approach on international students shows that the Home Office is yet again dominant.”
HEPI has also selected Labour’s "flaky" sources of income for reducing tuition fees as a possible weakness.
The party’s “vague” commitment to reduce tax avoidance, added to the shifting of £50 million from HE to school careers advice, means “there is considerable doubt and uncertainty” on how the funding shortfall from lower fees will be made up.
Sir David Bell, the Vice-Chancellor of Reading University, also has concerns about how Labour will fund the tuition fee reduction.
“Tax avoidance crackdowns are easy to announce but notoriously difficult in providing a sustained long-term revenue stream,” he said.
The cost burden of lifting the cap on student numbers could be the weakness in a Conservative policy that has otherwise played out well politically, said Mike Finn.
“It fits with free market ideals and it allows more people to go to university,” he said. “But the weakness from a policy point of view are fairly glaring. No-one knows what the cost burden will be but the odds are it will be significant. It will also accelerate trends in terms of the differentiation of quality and hierarchy between degree courses.”
He also points to UKIP’s commitment to waive fees for students on STEM courses. While the policy may appeal to business and parents, these courses are the most expensive and the no-fee guarantee could well lead to a sudden surge in the numbers opting for them, sending the burden on the taxpayer spiralling.
Professor Wolf pointed out that UKIP’s policies on overseas students were dependent on the UK leaving the European Union.
Universities UK believes there is some wriggle room in the Tory HE funding policy. While the Conservatives do not commit to any kind of review, the pledge to ‘ensure’ the ‘success and stability’ of the reforms “suggests some changes to the student finance system may be planned – or at least that the party does not wish to rule them out”.
Labour’s commitment to improve vocational and technical education and create more obvious pathways between school, further and higher education has been seen by many commentators as an opportunity. However, the plan is short on detail.
Professor Wolf said Labour has at least recognised the importance of alternative routes, but it is not clear how they will be funded.
“The idea that new technical degrees will be co-funded by employers, who have refused to fund anything for years and have slashed training budgets, is unrealistic,” she argues.
She also welcomed mention of part-time study in many of the manifestos, but bemoaned the lack of “real answers” on how to halt the decline.
“Working lives are getting longer, but all parties are prioritising the young in their university fees, subsidy and admissions policies,” she said.
Sally Hunt, the University and College Union general secretary, welcomed Labour’s attempts to develop non-traditional routes, but said it needed to “clear up questions about funding for adult education,” which has been cut under the Coalition.
The Green Party’s proposals for free HE and writing off current debt were “interesting in terms of ambition” but it was not clear how they would be paid for, said Pam Tatlow.
The Million+ director also said that the Liberal Democrats promised review of HE funding could present a chance to explore possible solutions, but the big issue was which way “the party would jump in the event of a minority government, particularly on the funding issue.”
There is some consensus across the sector that the Conservative pledge of a Research Excellence Framework-style assessment of university teaching represents a potential threat, particularly if it is linked to funding.
“If it is simply to give potential students more information, a REF-style framework could be expensive and unnecessary,” said Pam Tatlow. “If, like the REF, it is used to distribute funding, that could be a significant problem.”
Professor Wolf agrees. “The risk is that a REF-style assessment could be a big waste of money and not tell us very much.”
HEPI questions the Liberal Democrats' silence on future student numbers.
“The fact that the Lib Dems are completely silent on the lifting of the cap policy in its manifesto suggests they may not be fully committed to it,” it said.
For the University Alliance, the jury is out on Labour’s headline £6,000 fee policy.
“If Labour does end up the ruling party in some shape or form we will watch very closely and actively engage as this policy is developed and delivered,” said Sam Jones. “The most important thing is that a change in sticker price fee does not result in a change to the overall investment in higher education. This will be critical to securing the future of higher education in the UK at a time when it is most needed to deliver UK growth.”
The Alliance also points out a “worrying lack of commitment” to maintaining the science ring-fence, with only the Liberal Democrats pledging to protect both the science research budget and infrastructure spending.
“This is clearly going to be a key battleground in the first post-election spending round”, Jones predicts.
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