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This election will test the laws (and patience) of the wonkiverse

There are four fundamental laws of the higher education universe. Not even a general election can break them, or can it? Martin McQuillan looks behind the already mind-numbing sloganeering.
This article is more than 6 years old

Martin McQuillan is a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) at Kingston University, London.

Like the physical universe, higher education has immutable laws. These rules are about to be tested in the June election called by Theresa May. There is so little to look forward to in this campaign, there are those of use who would prefer the government called a snap REF rather than a snap election.

Politics trumps policy

The first law of higher education is that the future of universities is political not technical. We can look forward to endless articles giving advice on what higher education policies the party manifestos should contain. The alert reader might want to compare them to the blogs written two years ago by the same wonks, little has changed.

As almost the last act of this squalid parliament, Jo Johnson’s Higher Education and Research Bill became law. As a result it is unlikely that universities will feature in this election in the same way that they have in the previous two. The policy differences between the main parties over the architecture of higher education regulation will be less important in the next five years than the political climate that falls out from this election.  Europe and immigration will now dominate the landscape for universities rather than the question of fees and funding.

Things can always get worse

The second unchanging law of higher education is that there is no situation so bad that it cannot get worse. Whatever happens in the general election we are likely to have a new minister for universities.  Jo Johnson was the author of the 2015 Conservative manifesto and was notably close to David Cameron and George Osborne. After the election, with Johnson’s legislative work complete, we can expect Theresa May, if she is returned as Prime Minister, to put her own sort of person in charge of universities. This will be someone who is prepared to deliver the government’s message on international students rather than to reflect the views of the sector.

Johnson-the-Remainer was often out of the loop on key decisions in the last 12 months, significantly when Amber Rudd made her speech at the Tory party conference, and again on the business of universities sponsoring schools. It is unlikely that the talent pool of the next parliament will be such that the Conservatives can afford to lose Johnson from government, but his time in charge of universities is surely up. The new minister could even be someone not yet elected to Westminster, but they will very probably be a Brexit optimist and sector skeptic.

The posh kids always win

The third law of higher education, as exemplified by the classic University Challenge episode of The Young Ones, is that the posh kids always win.  That is to say, higher education policy in England is always designed to create favourable conditions for the haves at the expense of the have-nots.

Should Theresa May secure the increased majority she is seeking, we can expect to see further stratification of the sector. There will be greater concentration of research funding through UKRI, non-competitive allocations of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, and as an inevitable consequence of whole-staff submission to the REF (however this finally plays out).

The TEF will mature in this parliament, creating artificial diversity between the fee-levels of institutions. The student loan book will grow further, and with longitudinal studies of graduate employment and repayment rates, this will lead to the inevitable, long-term financialisation of English higher education. In the next five years, we could see an established university close, and the terms of borrowing a student loan begin to change from universal provision towards a risk assessment of the student’s background, the university chosen, and the typical repayment rates for their chosen subject.

It always takes at least 12 months for the mission groups and civil servants to persuade a new minister that there is more to the sector than Oxford and Cambridge. We can look forward to a reset on questions of access, quality and value-for-money after the election. We will, in fact, be lucky to see the TEF results and the arrangements for REF 2021 this side of the summer, as a new ministerial team will take time to bed in.

Universities outlast ministers

The fourth and final law of higher education, that exceeds the first three, is that universities outlive ministers. Theorists used to formulate this rule as ‘higher education ministers last two years, universities last forever’. However, recent experimental data has now cast this latter observation into doubt.

The Higher Education and Research Act 2017, as we must learn to call it, may have been the last gasp of a discredited parliament but it will be the second wind of marketisation for the sector. Higher education in England is no longer a supply-led industry. English universities are now in a demand-led environment in which the regulator has the last word. The Rubicon has been crossed, and few in higher education have really begun to understand what the implications of that are for universities. They will have the next five years of Conservative government to contemplate it.

A test of faith

Theresa May has said that she is going to the polls in order to secure a mandate for her Brexit negotiations. In reality she is calling an election because the government had become practically immobilised on domestic policy. From the budget and Grammar Schools to the tortured path of the HE Bill, there seems to have been no legislative initiative proposed that was not meet with opposition from Conservative backbenchers greater than the Government’s majority of 12.

May has come to the conclusion that it is time to cash in on the gift of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership in order to secure a more comfortable majority in the Commons. It will not make an iota of difference to the coming negotiations with the European Union. She knows that when the reality of the deal she will be able to obtain for Brexit began to dawn on the electorate it would be much more difficult to secure as big a majority in 2020.

An election followed by Brexit followed by a referendum on Scottish independence (lets jump off that particularly bridge when we get there). This is not even to mention the future of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is enough to make even the most hardened wonk question the immutable laws of the universe. The polls could be wrong of course, and the Prime Minister’s gamble might back fire leaving her with a more complex parliamentary arithmetic than the one she has just given up. We have six weeks of thrilling debate ahead of us to test that particular hypothesis.

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