Don’t be so sure that Labour will be a friend to universities

A Labour government may not mean the sector relationship reset that many are hoping for. Jess Lister cautions us about raising expectations

Jess Lister is Associate Director in the Education Practice at Public First

If you speak to any university about their government relations at the moment, you tend to get the same response.

First, there’s a weary sigh at the current state of affairs, usually followed by a joke about Liz Truss.

Then, things take a more optimistic turn; there will, of course, likely be a new Labour government after the next election.

This Labour government, they say reassuringly, is going to solve all the sector’s problems: sort out university finances, end the culture wars, fix the OfS, and crucially, let universities get on with it without too much interference.

Pipe dream

But with Labour unable to say much about the key higher education topic – tuition fees – and drifting right on cultural and economic issues, the sector might soon find itself (once again) without any political allies.

There are a series of issues where those working in universities expect to find a willing ally in the Labour party. I suspect instead they’re about to be sorely disappointed.

Take the balance of home against international students as one example. It’s well reported that there’s an upcoming boom on demand for university places for home students, with nearly 200,000 more 18 years olds in 2030 compared to 2022. Nearly 28,000 A-Level students who had applied by UCAS last year had no university offer – not a large figure in itself, but a 75 per cent increase on 2019.

There is, however, no political consensus that the sector can fail to address this demand and instead continue substituting places for home students with more lucrative international students. Labour’s whole political pitch is geared towards the aspirant working and middle classes, those “just about managing” , with an offer that a Labour government would make their lives better.

Making it more difficult for this group’s children to go to university doesn’t seem to fit into this agenda – particularly when all our research on this topic tells us that parents’ main aim for their children is to send them off to get a good degree.

Tough on the causes

The sector’s increasingly liberal approach to drug policy is another. Labour’s return to a 1997 style tough on crime strategy includes a tough stance on drug use. The recent debate sparked by UUK’s work on student drug use has left the sector looking for sympathetic political partners on this issue..

Taking a more liberal harm reduction approach might be a laudable effort for student safety. But if it is framed as universities making it easier to take drugs on campus, it seems unlikely to win them an alliance with a Labour party about to fight an election with a “crackdown on crime” mandate, and who are more likely to side with voters who back taking stricter action on drug use.

Nor will the media – or parents – look too kindly on this approach.

Universities don’t work in service of their political masters, and this piece is not to suggest they need to abandon their current strategies in service of an agenda that would be more politically pleasing. But they do need to be aware of how electoral politics and public opinion might impact them – and to be realistic about this.

A Keir Starmer led Labour party is focusing on winning back voters it lost to the Conservatives in 2019, with a mission-led centrist policy platform to match.

Its main focus in education is childcare, schools and lower level skills reform. Universities’ political instincts increasingly seem out of sync with this – and it’s easy to see a world in which many of the sector’s political asks and demands are simply ignored.

The election will act as a forcing function for both parties to define their offer and pick their allies. The higher education sector, which will have a role to play in any political argument about economic growth, civic pride, and future prosperity has a strong case to make – but is not making the case particularly strongly.

And as British politics moves to the centre, there seems a not-insignificant risk that the sector will find itself facing another five years without any real political friends.

10 responses to “Don’t be so sure that Labour will be a friend to universities

  1. This is a valuable reminder of political realities, but shouldn’t be overstated. Jess is right on these issues and the sector can’t expect a Labour government of its dreams. At the same time though there isn’t an instinctive hostility to the current HE sector in the Labour Party, in contrast to the significant element of this in large parts of the Conservative Party. In the same way that while Labour won’t re enter the EU single market but there would be a very different relationship with the EU as a result of a less antagonistic mindset to Europe, should we get a Labour government the sector will not find all of its problems solved and wishes granted – but it will benefit in important ways from the change in mindset and culture within which the difficult issues related to HE are discussed.

  2. I agree with Bob that moving away from outright hostility toward the sector would be something of an improvement. Still, this piece serves as a reminder that the current Labour party is no longer a natural home for many of us associated with universities, and this is something that will need to be carefully considered at the next election.

  3. I don’t think there has ever been a government that has been an “ally” to the sector, just ones that have maybe been less antagonistic. A Labour government would undoubtedly have many difficult challenges to negotiate and it is doubtful that their solutions would please everyone across the sector, however a recognition of the value of higher education would undoubtedly be a start.

  4. Very few people in Keir Starmer’s team are working on higher education and so it is highly unlikely there will be anything meaningful in the manifesto. The priorities for Labour are very clearly child care and early years education.

    1. I would agree with that. Even under New Labour they were. Tuition Fees were increased in 2004 largely because of the need to expand Early Years education and Sure Start.

  5. As long as the predominant views of the sector on so many issues are so far removed from anything but those of a small but noisy band of extremists, then political ally-ship will be in short supply, as to do anything else would be electoral suicide…It’s not rocket science, as would be obvious if more of those in HE left their bubble long enough to stop sneering at the rest of the population

    1. “It’s not rocket science, as would be obvious if more of those in HE left their bubble long enough to stop sneering at the rest of the population” fat chance of that, the lifelong academic inmates, perpetual s-too-dense and can’t make it in the ‘real world ™’ senior admin staff wouldn’t survive without their groupthink bubble to support them.

  6. “The higher education sector, which will have a role to play in any political argument about economic growth, civic pride, and future prosperity has a strong case to make – but is not making the case particularly strongly.”

    From inside the sector, it seems this is all we have talked about and tried to evidence for the past few years through numerous pieces of research and economic analysis. It’s interesting that Jess doesn’t think it’s cutting through. How can the sector make a more compelling case to policymakers when it feels as though they are willfully ignoring the evidence in front of them?

  7. Some wise words from Jess here. I don’t think there is a lot of room for latitude on the policy front from Labour. It will still be constrained financially. They are unlikely to put more money in, need to be honest about a graduate tax vs loan system and have been as keen as the current Government to push Apprenticeships and opportunities for the other 50%. There may be less hostility to international students which would be welcome but there is unlikley to be a nirvana as some might hope. If student controls return it might see more UG students missing out on places rather less.

  8. To paraphrase Tony Blair, an incoming Starmer-led Labour UK government will have three priorities: England, England and England. The rest of us are getting very used to our opinions being ignored …

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