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A short history of party manifestos for HE

As the political parties begin publishing their 2015 election manifestos, Emily Lupton takes a look at the growing importance of higher education in general election campaigns since 1979.
This article is more than 8 years old

Emily Lupton graduated from the University of Lincoln in 2014 with a degree in Journalism. She worked for Wonkhe as Graduate Editor for a year before moving onto other journalistic pursuits.

Looking back at elections since 1979, Emily Lupton tracks the increasing importance of universities in political party manifestos and general election campaigns.

1979 Election

The 1979 political parties said little about higher education. Labour’s had something on social mobility and promised to “substantially increase the opportunities for people from working-class backgrounds – particularly adults – to enter further and higher education.” The Conservatives noted that we should ensure Britain maintains its worldwide reputation for quality and mentioned that the conservatives are aware of the ‘special problems’ of increasing the number of ‘high-quality entrants to the engineering professions. The Liberals offered little more, but suggested that the party would like to see better integration between post-school education and universities, polytechnics and further education.

No party makes any real assurances, no figures or facts to stick to or even aim for. Higher education seems a little forgotten about.

1983 Election

There was a little more on the cards for universities in the 1983 manifestos. Labour’s manifesto outlined a number of aims for higher education including a promised investment and expansion for science and technology, ‘adequate funding’ for higher education, research councils and government establishments.

The Conservatives aimed to provide more teaching and research on information technology and promised 700 new posts for lecturers and 2,200 new student places.

The Liberal and SDP alliance manifesto didn’t focus much on higher education but did say that the party aims to increase access to HE and FE as well as review the structure of higher education.

1987 Election

The most notable point in the Conservative 1987 manifesto was the plan to convert polytechnics and other higher education colleges in England to free standing corporate bodies under boards of governors. Alongside that proposal, the Tories aimed to set up a new polytechnics and college funding council to be independent of central government, increase student numbers by 50,000 and raise the proportion of 18-year-olds in higher education. They also stated their support for top up loans to supplement grants.

Labour on the other hand didn party promised to ensure universities and polytechnics got the resources they needed to “to restore and expand the opportunity for all qualified young people seeking higher education to secure places” as well as ensure more adults had access to higher education and invest in research in higher education to “provide the facilities and opportunities necessary to sustain standards of excellence, to retain and attract the highest talents and to encourage the industrial and commercial application of research output.”

The Liberal SDP alliance manifesto set out aims to let the long term unemployed take up vacant university places to increase the number of students by 20% over five years – a step on the way to doubling the number by 2000, and to set up a Higher Education council to coordinate the running of both sectors of higher education. The manifesto also stated that the party supported the Conservative plan to give polytechnics corporate status but not to bring them under national control.

1992 Election

By 1992, with more students entering university, higher education was becoming more prevalent in party manifestos.

The 1992 Conservative manifesto began with a pat on the back, listing various figures highlighting to the increase in students entering higher education and the money saved after the introduction of student loans. The biggest point in the manifesto was their aim to abolish the ‘artificial binary line’ between universities and polytechnics”. Although this was mentioned in the manifesto, there was no clear plan set out or even a timescale, though of course we know that the Conservatives did deliver. The rest of their manifesto promised to ‘ensure academic standards are maintained’, ‘expand our student loans commitment’ and other wishy-washy aims.

The 1992 Labour manifesto, which opens with a poem Winter Ending by Adrian Henri, set out a few aims for higher education. Firstly they planned to replace student loans with grants, and wanted to introduce a ‘return to learn’ grant for those over 50. The party also aimed to double the number of students in higher education with ‘at least one in three participating by the year 2000’. This is something that, as the Conservatives pointed out in their manifesto, was on course to happen anyway.

The Liberal Democrats also aimed to increase the number of students in higher education, their goal was for 2 million by 2000. They promised for the first time to abolish student loans and ‘fund students properly’; “we will establish a Student Income Entitlement and a Student Allowance to which all students”. They also proposed to increase participation, improve flexibility in courses, increase the science budget and set up a new Higher Education Standards Council to guarantee quality.

1997 Election

The 1997 Conservative manifesto began with mentions of HE growth, highlighting that 1/3 students then went to university. But there was little else mentioned aside from aims to ensure consistently high standards and consult on the development of higher education after the Dearing Review. The manifesto also mentioned the introduction of NVQs.

Labour’s 1997 party manifesto suggested that the improvement and expansion in higher education could not be funded out of general taxation; “The costs of student maintenance should be repaid by graduates on an income-related basis, from the career success to which higher education has contributed.” Though the manifesto didn’t go into detail or highlight a plan for implementation, this was a clear aim from Labour, which they did deliver after winning the election and after the Dearing report was published.

The Liberal Democrats also proposed to scrap the student loans scheme in their manifesto. Like Labour, they promised to replace the scheme with a fair repayment scheme linked to salaries in later life. The manifesto also stated the party’s opposition for top-up fees for tuition.

Both the SNP and the Green Party stated their opposition for the student loans system too and promised to replace it with a return to maintenance grants in their 1997 manifestos.

2001 Election

In their 2001 manifesto, the Conservatives promised to create permanent endowment funds for universities in order to give them more independence. These would be paid for by future asset sales and the reform of student loans, creating a saving of £1.3bn. The party promised that graduates would not pay back student loans until they were earning £20,000 per year, and that they would not introduce top up fees.

In their 2001 manifesto, Labour famously promised “We will not introduce ‘top-up’ fees and have legislated to prevent them”. The party also promised university summer schools, master classes and mentoring support for potential students from disadvantaged areas through a new Excellence Challenge program backed up by £190 million of funding. Also in the manifesto was the aim to expand student numbers to 50% and set up an NHS University.

In 2001 the Liberal Democrats promised to get rid of tuition fees across the UK. They also promised to restore grants for poor students and access to benefits for all during the summer holidays as well as raise the salary threshold for student loan repayment from £10,000 to £13,000.

In their manifesto, the party also stated plans to improve access for under-represented, mature and part-time students by tripling incentive payments. They aimed to improve salaries for staff and end the pay gap between men and women at universities. They also stated they would oppose any reduction in the unit of resource.

The SNP also said at this election that tuition fees should be abolished and maintenance grants should be restored based on student income. UKIP encouraged the setting up of private universities and colleges, “with generous provision for scholarships for bright students from less advantaged backgrounds.”

2005 Election

Labour’s 2005 manifesto had much on primary and secondary education, but not a great deal for universities. They did maintain their aim for 50% of young people to go onto higher education by 2010, mentioned a 30% increase in average PhD stipends and said they would “incentivise all universities to raise more charitable and private funding for student bursaries and endowments”.

The party also stated they were investing £1billion more in the science base and increasing public spending on higher education by 34% though this promise came with the statement that “graduates and employers must also play their part”. They said they would generate £1billion of extra funds by 2010. A quarter of the income from the new student finance system was to go to bursaries for students from poorer families and Labour promised not to raise fees above £3,000 during the next Parliament.

In contrast to their current policies, The Conservative’s 2005 manifesto promised to scrap fees and “abolish Labour’s admissions regulator”. They also promised to help universities move towards greater financial independence by building up their individual endowments. The section on higher education was otherwise slim.

The Liberal Democrats promised to scrap tuition and top-up fees in their 2005 manifesto and attacked Labour for breaking their promise on tuition fees; “tens of thousands of able students are saddled with mortgage-sized debts or deterred altogether from going to university”. Scrapping tuition fees was costed at £1.2 billion and would be funded with a 50% tax on incomes over £100,000. The party would also help poorer students with more grants to cover maintenance costs.

The UKIP 2005 manifesto attacked higher education; “The UK Independence Party believes that the university sector has already expanded too far”. The party suggested closing courses of an ‘insufficient standard’ and criticised the difference between older and newer universities. They would also kick out any students failing annual examinations at university. Top-up fees and tuition fee loans would be scrapped, maintenance grants would be given ‘as necessary’, and students from the EU would be charged the same fees as those from outside (which is a commitment they maintain in 2015, despite being illegal).

The Green Party also said that they would scrap tuition fees and would replace student loans with maintenance grants to ensure students have a decent standard of living. This would be paid for with the parties proposed ‘progressive income tax system’ which would see a 50% rate on earnings over £50,000 and 60% on earnings over £100,000.

2010 Election

By 2010, higher education had become an important part of the election campaign. The Browne Review was set up by the Labour government to be published after the election, thus theoretically removing HE from the campaign – but it didn’t work out this way.

Labour’s 2010 manifesto mainly focused on widening participation and boosting mobility, promising mentoring support for low-income he applicants, extra summer schools and help with UCAS applications. The manifesto also mentioned priority in expansion of student places for Foundation Degrees and part time study and science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees. Finally there was a push for ‘high-quality learning’; “All universities will be required clearly to set out how they will ensure a high-quality learning experience for students”.

In their ‘50 steps to a future fair for all’ Labour promised to have every young person guaranteed education or training until 18, with 75 per cent going on to higher education, or completing an advanced apprenticeship or technician level training, by the age of 30.

As it had for several elections before, the Liberal Democrats 2010 manifesto promised to abolish tuition fees. The words used in the manifesto were; “Scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each”. The party said they had a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, making the change affordable without cutting university income. This was backed up by the famous ‘pledge’ in which Lib Dem candidates signed their names on a document promising not to raise tuition fees.

The Lib Dems also planned to create a National Bursary Scheme, replace the Skills Funding Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council for England with a single Council for Adult Skills and Higher Education, scrap the target of 50% of young people attending university, discuss a trial scheme where the best students from lowest achieving schools are guaranteed a place in higher education, fund 15,000 new places on Foundation Degree courses and fully fund the cost of adult apprenticeships, and create better target spending on adult skills.

The 2010 Conservative manifesto gave plans to delay the implementation of the Research Excellence Framework so that it may be reviewed. The manifesto also promised to provide 10,000 extra university places in 2010 paid for by “giving graduates incentives to pay back their student loans early on an entirely voluntary basis”.

Elsewhere in their manifesto the party set out a plan to provide university and further education scholarships for the children of servicemen and women killed while on active duty, backdated to 1990.

The Green party promised again in their manifesto to phase in the abolition of tuition fees. UKIP’s plan for higher education was to denationalise universities and FE colleges replacing grants and loans with ‘student vouchers’ and ‘training vouchers’ issued to every citizen at the age of 18. These vouchers could be cashed in at any point in an individual’s life. Under the plans, universities and FE colleges would function as independent charities.

The SNP promised Scottish students new financial support, with a £30 million package to increase their income through grants and loans. The party promised not to introduce tuition fees or top up fees and to oppose any changes in English fees arrangements that have the knock on effect of reducing funding for Scotland through the Barnett formula.

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