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Embrace the chaos, time to choose

The election result suddenly seems more unpredictable than previously thought, and the polls are all over the place. But both major parties' manifestos suggest plenty of post-election chaos for universities, says Martin McQuillan.
This article is more than 6 years old

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

As the United Kingdom goes to the polls for the second time in two years and barely twelve months since the divisive referendum on membership of the European Union, it feels as if Diego Maradona’s time in charge of the Argentinian national football team was a model of strong and stable leadership in comparison to our own political scene.

Only two weeks ago it looked as if the Conservatives were nailed on for a landslide victory. There is no other way to interpret a long-term 20% lead in the opinion polls. Now, the psephologists are all over the place with ICM for The Guardian suggesting an 11% lead for the Tories on the 4th of June, while Survation for the Mail on Sunday put the lead at only 1% the day before. YouGov is bravely predicting a hung parliament, while our political scientists like Robert Ford at the University of Manchester give credence to a set of figures that imply something like a 50-60 seat Conservative gain.

It should never have been this close. The self-inflicted campaign has shown Theresa May’s feet of clay. It is truly incredible that the Conservative manifesto could include a policy so bad that opponents can easily characterise it as ‘the dementia tax’. They might as well have distributed a sample of voter repellent to every letterbox.

The Tory campaign has been so bad that in its final days Jeremy Corbyn has been on the front foot attacking Theresa May over policing and security. Just let that sink in for a moment.

Brexit means silence

The ostensible reason for the election, Brexit, has been absent from the debate. We are none the wiser on either the Conservative or Labour approach to Brexit negotiations. It is still not clear that anyone in the top team of either party understands the extent of the challenge posed by the triggering of Article 50. To have had one national poll on this subject without proper debate is unfortunate, to have now had two in twelve months looks like carelessness.

The real reason for the election, to give Theresa May a bigger majority so that she is no longer dependent upon the alt-right wing of the Conservative Party and will be freer to pass a domestic programme, looks like it might blow up in her face. Anything below a 50-seat gain would be a terrible result for the Prime Minister, and the rigours of the Brexit process could yet see Conservative MPs turn on their leader before the parliament is out.

Theresa May’s campaign performance suggests that she has failed to learn the fundamental lesson of David Cameron’s defeat in the EU referendum and Hilary Clinton’s loss in the US Presidential election, namely, do not treat the electorate as if they are stupid. Robotic answers and refusing televised debates is an insult to those you are expecting to deliver you a landslide victory.

Expect nothing

Like all politicians, Corbyn has his strengths and weaknesses, but he does not generally treat his would-be electors as if they were idiots. It is perhaps for this reason that so many now seem willing to overlook his patchy record as a leader of his party and his previous positions on revolutionary movements. Some undecided voters seem not to care and just yearn for something different, anything different when offered another five years of May’s squalid Brexit cabinet.

Even working with YouGov’s heroically optimistic constituency forecasts, Labour would still not be a government in waiting. However, if Mr Corbyn polls better than Ed Miliband did two years ago then he has every right to stay on as leader, and his opponents in the party will have to suck it up for the foreseeable future.

The choice then is between two types of rollercoaster. On the one hand, a Conservative Party that has swallowed UKIP and is intent on driving the nation over the Brexit cliff edge as hard and as fast as possible. Now with the added ingredient of a leader tarnished by an election campaign she vowed not to hold. On the other hand, a Labour Party that has only decided to put itself back together again in the last weeks of the campaign as they realise their opponents’ incompetence means their own predicted wipeout will not be as bad as they expected.

More questions than answers

It is not a great choice, but it is still a choice. For universities, the unresolved questions of Brexit will dominate the next parliament. However, there are very important issues of higher education policy to be weighed up in this election.

The Labour offer on tuition fees raises as many questions as it answers. If we returned to a pre-1998 world of no tuition fees at all, this would necessarily imply a return of the student number cap, unless Mr Corbyn proposes to write vice chancellors a blank cheque. What would this cap be? How will it be distributed across individual universities and shared with further education? Will there be a return of a teaching grant? Will there be another higher education bill pushed through parliament before April 2018 to replace the Office for Students? How will fair access be insured in the face of a number cap? What will happen to alternative providers and their existing students? Having an answer to these thorny questions of policy would be the difference between having a popular policy and a populist policy.

The proposal to write off all graduate debt as a one-off £30 billion capital infrastructure payment makes perfect sense. Ed Miliband’s office considered something similar before the 2015 election but never went public with it. It is the logical conclusion, on the grounds of inter-generational justice, of abolishing tuition fees. It does, however, beg the question of compensating all those who have been paying off loans for the last two decades.

However, these are more interesting questions to contemplate than the questions that might be put to a new Conservative minister for higher education. What will you do when a large incorporated university inevitably experiences ‘market failure’? How will LEO data be integrated into TEF metrics and to what purpose? What does a fundamental review of funding for tertiary education mean? Will all existing universities be allowed to recruit international students?

The election campaign has not produced answers from either party, but which set of questions would you rather be faced with on Friday morning? There will be those turned off by Corbyn’s past and the claims that hang about him, but Labour tribalism runs deep amongst the university set. It is time to choose, embrace the chaos and enjoy the ride. Whatever happens this evening, universities should buckle up. The next parliament is going to be as much of a wild ride as the last.

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