Lib Dem manifesto steers largely clear of universities

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The Liberal Democrats have published their manifesto for the election, and there’s not much there for universities. 

It may have been naive to hope the party would have any fresh ideas considering in the area their troubled recent history with tuition fees, but the higher education pledges that feature in the new manifesto are very similar to 2015‘s document. 

In the 2015 general election, the Lib Dems were planning for another term in government with the Conservatives, and so included a plan to legislate for new regulatory reforms in higher education which was expected. This time, the party is in a very different position and wants to be seen to criticise Conservative policy. The proposed regulatory reform of the sector has now been delivered, but without a Lib Dem voice at the table.

Below are the key headlines from the new manifesto.

Funding

A difficult area for the party given the events of 2010, this year’s manifesto turns its fire on the government by promising to reinstate maintenance grants. More curiously, and as was in 2015, it is now Lib Dem policy to “review” higher education funding in the next parliament, specifically to stop any further retrospective changing of terms and conditions to loans, or selling off the loan book to private companies.

Lifelong learning

The manifesto’s section on lifelong learning is a watered down version of the 2015 edition. However, this time there is a promise to expand higher vocational training including foundation degrees, Higher National Diplomas, Higher National Certificates and higher apprenticeships. Interestingly, there is no mention of degree (or degree-level) apprenticeships, but a passing promise to ensure levy money is spent on “training”. A brand new – if slightly hidden – promise is to create Individual Learning Accounts for adult and part-time learning. Though a blundering attempt was made in this area in the early New Labour years, ILAs are back in vogue these days it seems.

Immigration and Home Office

You’d be forgiven for missing the promise to remove students from the net migration figures. Despite being a significant area of distinction from the Tories, the policy is worded strangely: “recognising their largely temporary status, remove students from the official migration statistics”. The party also wants to ensure universities have a transparent visa system and measure international student numbers accurately. Furthermore, there is also a promise to reinstate post-study work visas for graduates in STEM subjects who find suitable employment within six months of graduating. Finally, there is a pledge to scrap the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy and replace it with a scheme that prioritises community engagement.

Research

Framed around the party’s anti-Brexit stance, much of the focus on research policy concerns Horizon 2020 and Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions programmes, mentions of which are scattered throughout the manifesto. There is a promise to fight to retain access and/or underwrite funding for British participants in EU-funded projects. The manifesto also outlines a long-term goal to double innovation and research spending across the economy.

Oddities

Elsewhere, there are a couple of slightly strangely worded promises related to higher education:

  • A promise to recognise the “value” of international staff to universities and promote international collaboration.
  • First promised in 2015, and despite the government’s attempts to make progress in this area, the Lib Dems continue to promise an effective system of credit transfer and recognition of prior learning.  
  • In light of the Higher Education and Research Act, the manifesto promises to “reinstate quality assurance for universities applying for degree-awarding powers”. The curious wording leads us to assume that this is a proposal to reverse the ability to gain probationary DAPs now available to new higher education providers.

The limited scope of this manifesto perhaps shows how the Lib Dems are still suffering from post-traumatic stress following their 2015 electoral debacle and the pains of Coalition government. It may be unfair to expect a more innovative higher education policy from a party with still so much to work out about its future direction. 

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