Keeping it under review at Conservative Party Conference

Image: Alamy

As I hinted at last week, party conferences are surreal. And none more so than this week’s Conservative Party gathering in Manchester.

For the HE sector, it started with a bang. The Prime Minister used her pre-conference media interviews to announce a freeze in tuition fees, a rise in the repayment threshold, and a big review of university funding.

‘Policy for Marr’ is an old trick – the Sunday papers and talk shows need to be fed with announcements to keep critics at bay and fill the space before the conference kicks off properly. Ed Miliband announced his policy to reduce fees to £6,000 for the same reason on the Marr show ahead of the 2011 conference. No one thought it would survive the week, let alone four years to a general election.

Then something strange started happening on Sunday afternoon – Jo Johnson and others started saying that the so-called “review” (by then assumed by many to be an all singing and dancing commission) was not happening, only that his department “always keeps the system under review”. And so we assumed that was it.

But something wasn’t quite adding up. No.10 officials started wondering outloud why the media hadn’t picked up on the review line more strongly. But they only had to look as far as their education department. DfE had been doing such a good job of talking it out of existence in one reality. But in another, it was apparently still alive.

Schrödinger’s review, if you like, only seemed to exist if you really thought about it. But you had to concentrate hard.

It was such a fragile idea and could so easily vanish in one of the many gusts of hot air that emanated from fringe meetings all over town.

I searched the conference halls high and low for the elusive review, and all I found were colleagues also searching, and all we could do is circulate the circular story, round and round the convention centre. Jo Johnson would only repeat that he “always keeps the system under review”.

I was starting to lose my grip on it.

Then with a bang, the review came back into being. Theresa May said in her extraordinary speech to the conference that the government would conduct a “major review of student finance and university funding”. For several hours, those lines were repeated on social media and news bulletins. And it seemed so real.

But no terms of reference were announced. No big chair appointed. There was not another word on the matter from No.10 or the Conservative Party. DfE declined an opportunity to talk to us further about it.

At the time of writing, the review still exists in two states: alive and dead. Only Whitehall politics will now provide us with the clarity we search for. Good luck, everyone.

The ambiguity, for now, does give us an opportunity to think about what such a review should look at if it ever happens. Elsewhere on the site, David Kernohan and I have attempted a first stab at that project. Expect many others to weigh in over the coming days and weeks.

The Secret List

You’ve not properly experienced Conservative Party Conference until you’ve been vigorously protested at on the way through security. This year’s protests were occasionally niche, but still angry, and journalists, sector lobbyists, government ministers and party activists were all shouted at equally.

I witnessed one very well-known HE sector figure making his way into the conference centre, only to be asked in a loud but matter-of-fact voice “ARE YOU ON THERESA MAY’S SECRET LIST OF PAEDOS?”

It’s not a question asked lightly, nor is it easily answered.

And it was left hanging, like a bad smell.

The other thing you notice at Conservative Party Conference is the size of the guns. Not only does airport-style security stand in the way of the public, teams of armed police walk the streets with massive, elaborate weapons with all sorts of inexplicable knobs and features and attachments like they’re heading to war. At Labour, there were hardly any armed police at all, and one had the distinct impression that the guns that were there were trained on Jeremy Corbyn, not the baying public.

But airport-style security and massive guns proved helpless in preventing a prankster with a piece of paper, determined to get on the news. It was a visual metaphor with sharp edges, but not sharp enough to be caught by G4S’s lackadaisical x-ray machines.

On the fringe

The fringe circuit was packed with HE-related content this year. By Tuesday, IFS had presented its costings of Theresa May’s plan to freeze tuition fees and raise the repayment threshold to £25,000. And as many suspected, it was eye-wateringly expensive, coming in at around £2bn extra per year on the government’s contribution to higher education. Discussion quickly turned to the sector’s fear that the Treasury would eventually come knocking on universities’ doors to pay for it. As Marr Show policies go, it proved to be one of the most costly.

NUS’s president Shakira Martin toured virtually every fringe meeting, owning the space wherever she went. At one event, she moved a panel almost to tears talking about why she’d left her crying kids in London to bring the message to the Conservative Party in Manchester that the government needed to help raise her peers out of poverty. NUS hasn’t had such a powerful advocate in years.

Lord Andrew Adonis (Lab) made a brief appearance to bash the university cartel and was clapped vigorously by Conservative Party activists. Maybe he’s thinking of switching parties.

Jo Johnson was haunted by the phantom review all around the circuit. “We always keep the system under review”. At the Moneysavingexpert meeting, he agreed that the system could be sold differently – and so presumably is looking at the ‘optics’ of the tuition fee system in his ongoing review. One his bigger missteps was the implication that students struggling with living costs should live a “more frugal existence”- this was widely picked up in the media. One can only assume that living costs also form part of his ongoing review. And he was criticised for blaming the decline in part-time higher education on a strong labour market (despite evidence to the contrary) in more than one fringe meeting. Something else then, for the ongoing review.

The audience for most fringe meetings were education wonks and sector lobbyists. Only one or two events had a genuine showing from party activists (“CAN I JUST SAY, I think there are too many students going to university!”). This year, they seemed more preoccupied with Brexit, Jacob Rees Mogg and Boris Johnson.

Theresa May’s speech, interrupted by a prankster, coughing fits and delivered on a stage that was crumbling around her, was a fitting end to a surreal week in which it felt like anything could happen. And things both frequently did and did not happen with varying degrees of severity.

As for what was actually announced, I think it’s safer (and clearly the fashionable choice) to keep it all under review.

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