A final sketch from Conservative Party Conference 2017, Mark Leach goes in search of the phantom review of student finance and university funding.
What does the Conservatives release their 2015 election manifesto say about higher education?
After the heat and noise around Labour’s announced £6,000 fee policy, Martin McQuillan continues his monthly series on higher education politics and policy by turning his attention to the Conservative Party – their policies and what life might be like for universities if the Conservatives are returned to power in May.
Higher education is now at the centre of a tentative Conservative Party leadership election battle between George Osborne and Theresa May. With May ever-pandering to right-wing impulses in immigration policy, Osborne is presenting himself as a friend of universities and growth, and both are preparing the battle lines that will follow after the General Election. As universities enter the heart of this new and intense political struggle, Martin McQuillan looks at its implications for higher education.
On the face of it, the Conservatives should be looking forward to discussing higher education at their party conference in Manchester next week. As we will no doubt hear, the numbers of full time students starting this year look to have bounced back to somewhere close to 2010 levels. The controversial reforms to tuition fees look a lot less problematic today – and unlike other areas of public sector reform (Universal Credit, the NHS) the political narrative appears (for the conservatives at least) to have a happy ending. But ideological tensions in the Conservative Party over these issues are becoming ever-more exposed. Andy Westwood attempts to pick them apart as the party begins to gather in Manchester, in the final instalment of his series on this year’s party conferences.
The Thatcherite ‘Free Enterprise Group’ made up largely of 2010 intake MPs have published a report on higher education funding; ‘Completing the Reform, Freeing the Universities’. It argues that financial independence and stability for universities can be achieved by building up endowment funds. Not a new idea by any means, but it is important to understand thinking about universities emanating from a group of MPs that contain current government ministers and others tipped to lead the Conservative Party one day.
Last week’s furore over Michael Gove’s ‘leaked’ plans to abolish GSCEs and bring back the O Level was an interesting moment for the education policy community who largely thought they had plumbed the depths of their disdain for the Education Secretary. But higher education should be worried, because Gove has only increased his political capital over the last week and could be preparing to bring his policy horror show to a university near you.
The Coalition Government is in terminal decline. Its sense of purpose has dissipated and internal politics threaten to derail the whole enterprise. The higher education policy circus that came to town in 2010 reflects more than ever the tensions within the Coalition and the bizarre, inconsistent and occasionally bad policy-making that stems from this faltering political arrangement. The Coalition’s expiry date is May 2015, and despite the entire Government machine fixing its sights on that date, things may fall apart before then.
The Government’s friendless higher education policies may have another enemy that has been previously lying low; the Tory right. Yesterday the Government announced their Social Mobility Strategy which has been broadly welcomed by most. But right-wing Tory, and one-time leadership hopeful David Davis, used the opportunity to further his libertarian argument that would see the retreat of the state in almost every aspect of life, including laws designed to rebalance unfair socio-economic realities. Included in his complaint are measures to ensure that universities take state school applicants through what many view as the discredited and largely toothless OFFA regime which in any case allows institutions to set their own benchmarks for success, rather than complying with a Whitehall edict.