David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

If there’s an overarching narrative to the first half of the 2024 general election campaign, it is that the Conservative party really isn’t doing very well at all.

Every political commentator in the UK has a theory as to why this might be – a desire for change, a failure to deliver, a sense of internal chaos, and the general state of public services and the economy.

Talking to yourselves

For me, it’s a prime example of what we might call “activist capture” – a party becoming less attractive to the general public as it becomes more ingrained in the factional and think-tank debates that have absolutely nothing to do with what real people are concerned about (at least, not without some serious press/outrider push).

The public, in most polling, is generally positive about universities (though negative about fees) – however higher education as a whole is not an issue that drives voter behaviour in the main. People want, in the main, their children to go to university. And they want the wider economic and social advantages that universities bring. For a small minority of activists on the right of the party, higher education is a serious problem: they might cite some combination of the expense of the system, a perceived “left-wing” bias driving anti-Conservative political views in young people, and a depletion effect on young people getting “proper” jobs.

The latter two critiques have persisted precisely because they are anecdotes rather than data – there is no underserved pool of good non-graduate jobs or apprenticeships available to offer a meaningful alternative to higher education, there is no evidence to suggest that universities do much to shape the political opinions of young people. Higher education, however, is expensive – the UK spends more per student on tertiary education than most countries outside the US, though it could be argued that no country outside the US has a system of comparable international standing.

There is, to a certain extent, a way in which every party wants to go off and do mad things it thinks are important – it’s kind of the point of a political party in some ways. Labour has historically been afflicted with this illness several times (lads: the mid-80s, the back end of last decade), to the extent that even now the idea of someone as centrist as Keir Starmer secretly being on the extreme wing of socialist thought still has a little bit of salience. But like being caught talking to yourself, being a party only concerned with internal interests doesn’t make you look good.

A break with the consensus

It’s with this in mind that we need to think about higher education in the manifestos. The Conservatives are diametrically opposed to every other party – and have broken with decades of consensus (indeed, if you’ve been reading Debbie McVitty and Adam Matthews’ series on previous manifestos, it’s been since at least the end of the second world war) – in actively arguing for less higher education.

I may have underplayed how weird this is.

Let me say it again. This is really weird.

You only need to look back as far as the 2019 Conservative manifesto to see stuff about “world class” universities, strengthening a strong global position in higher education, even on the benefits of international recruitment. Universities are one of the UK’s success stories, and are generally seen by the public as something to be proud of. Universities are aspirational, drive local economies, and contribute to national productivity.

In the 2024 Conservative manifesto, universities are either peddling “poor-quality” courses (keeping young people out of the degree apprenticeships they need) that need to be forcibly closed, not giving students what they want (due to industrial action or a lack of capacity to provide contact hours), or bringing in international students that just want to cheat immigration rules. Universities, in other words, are a problem to be solved – for nearly every other party, they are a part of a solution to wider societal problems.

The exception is Reform UK – we’ve not had a full manifesto yet, but the “draft contract with you” is not an encouraging read. Here we see the other angle on university criticism that has characterised the last few years – “wokeness”. Having passed the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act recently the Conservatives can’t really use this line any more, but Reform really lean in (the Act was, apparently, “toothless”). Reform want to extend graduate repayments out another five years and cut interest rates (though this has already happened, of course) – and university places would be restricted “well below current levels” via minimum entry standards.

What the sector does

For those of us outside of the online echo chambers and the thinktanks of Tufton Street, most parties appear to agree with the public that universities are – on balance – a good thing. Throughout other manifestos, the sector is called on to support innovation and startups (Lib Dems), participate in a “vaccine taskforce” style push for green power (Greens), support their local economy and the recently unemployed (Plaid Cymru), and exercise “soft power” internationally while getting involved in local skills and industrial planning (Labour). What’s striking here is not the range and scope of these asks, but the fact that these are all things that universities already do on top of their accepted core of educating people and performing research.

In order to do these things (and many others) universities need to be financially viable – and there is a consensus that, currently, they are not. While fixing this will not be an immediate priority with anyone (NHS and schools have first dibs on available cash, skills and defence have seen historic neglect) it is a welcome priority.

The Lib Dems offer that much requested major review of higher education finances, while the Greens go straight for the abolition of fees and the return of grants. This latter option is a long term goal for Plaid Cymru, who in the short term want a concerted effort to expand the number of Welsh students studying in Wales and to take some measures to address student poverty.


The Labour position (as perhaps befits a party widely expected to lead the next government) is described in very vague terms. A Labour government would “act” to create a secure future for higher education, agreeing that the current funding settlement “does not work for the taxpayer, universities, staff, or students”. Alongside this, we get a near-restatement of the Robbins principle on access to higher education:

Labour will continue to support the aspiration of every person who meets the requirements and wants to go to university

Research funding also looks set for reform – “key R&D institutions” would see 10 year budgets replace short funding cycles, in order to drive innovation (in spinouts) and partner meaningfully with industry.

Labour would also work to address issues with the sector. This is couched in terms of “strengthening regulation”, and if you’ve been following what shadow ministers have been saying you would read this as regulation that is fit for purpose. And there will be work on “teaching quality”, which – reading far too much into the choice of words – is a very welcome change from “low quality courses” or even “quality of outcomes”. There is also loosely sketched work on a wider tertiary sector (with roles for “different providers” and on how students move between institutions.


Even if you feel the party you favour is doing well, it’s hard to disagree that the campaign so far has been a difficult watch. You certainly do not get nuance or even engagement in debates or in the series of soundbites (and, horrifyingly, memes) that political communications professionals imagine is what talking to “the people” involved. The bad news is that the flow of simplistic and often factually incorrect lines on everything from tax to trans rights isn’t going to stop anytime soon.

Former New York governor Mario Cuomo is frequently attributed with birthing one of the finest cliches about elections: you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose. For me, this is no longer accurate – there has been precious little poetry in the 2024 election campaign so far. With the possible and painful exception of Nigel Farage, our current crop of leaders are not able to drive the national narrative with the kind of compelling oracy (where was that in the manifesto, Keir?) that inspires supporters and silences – temporarily – critics.

It was Sarah Palin who asked America how that “hopey-changey stuff” was going under an Obama presidency – for all the good he may do, no-one will ever ask that of the first Keir Starmer administration. Perhaps, after Brexit and the culture wars, we need a little less rhetoric and a little more reality – for higher education, sure: but for the country too.

We’ve so far had manifestos from Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party (in England and Wales), and Plaid Cymru. We are expecting manifestos from the SNP (and other Scottish parties), and the Northern Irish parties, next week. As mentioned above, we only have a “draft” from Reform UK.

One response to “A historic shift in higher education manifesto promises

  1. “Labour will continue to support the aspiration of every person *who meets the requirements* and wants to go to university” implies potential for minimum entry requirements: sounds a bit harder edged to me than “qualified by ability and attainment” in the Robbins formulation.

    The Labour manifesto was also silent on lifelong learning and reskilling/upskilling which is disappointing given previous commitments to the LLE

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