Welcome to the first Wonkhe 2015 General Election political panel. Over the course of this series, three higher education wonks with links to the three main UK parties discuss and debate the policies, parties and personalities
The panel are:
Anne-Marie Canning, Head of Widening Participation at King’s College London and a former Labour councillor
Jonathan Woodhead, Executive Officer to the VC at London Metropolitan University and former researcher for David Willetts and Mark Prisk
Dewi Knight, Policy Adviser to the VC at the University of Bedfordshire, who led on policy for the Welsh Liberal Democrats through two national elections
Dewi (DK): We’re now fully into the campaign proper and it’s been fake fuzz, non-doms and buzz about Nicola. As we kick off the week of manifesto launches, the HE agenda remains set by Ed Miliband’s tuition fees announcement.
So, Anne-Marie, starting with you – Labour has sought to position the cut in fees as a debt reduction policy, do you think this is aimed at parents as much as potential and current students?
Anne-Marie (AMC): The inter-generational fairness issue has definitely been a key philosophy for the 6k fee policy. Radio interviews on the day of the announcement certainly reached out to parents and even grandparents. Certainly it seems to be going down well with the older generation out on the doorstep.
DK: And how do you see its impact for widening participation and funding in that aspect – perhaps thinking about the day job?
AMC: With the much-needed ‘careers guidance in every school’ policy rolled out as part of the education manifesto we’ve seen an unprecedented assertiveness over universities OFFA-countable funds. All £50m costs will come from the universities additional tuition fee element.
Meanwhile, Labour student activists here on campus have some really well designed leaflets declaring ‘fees down, grants up’ with an accompanying piggy bank image. My big question is: nicely done on the grants but what happens to the institutional bursaries that some of our students currently receive? That’s a bigger issue for the piggy banks of our poorest undergraduates.
DK: Thanks Anne-Marie, that’s an interesting perspective on WP and investment in student success. Jonathan – the Conservatives have made a big play of “finishing Robbins work” on lifting the numbers cap, is there a danger that they now see it as ‘job done’?
Jonathan (JW): Yes I think there is certainly a sense of accomplishment around (finally) delivering the Robbins Principle – ‘there is a university place for all those that are qualified and would benefit’ – but as higher fees have not deterred poorer students applying to HE, the WP debate now needs to be moved on to postgraduate study. This is where the Masters and PhD loans come in. While we are all waiting to see the exact detail this should help to reverse the decline of UK domiciled students pursuing PG qualifications.
DK: Just on that issue of detail, a little plug for Wonkhe consultation on support for postgraduate study. Do you see a flip side to the expectation that has followed the positivity on wearing Robbins’ cloak?
JW: The real danger around the lifting the numbers cap of course is where universities with a more established brand who maybe sit in the middle of the league tables can ‘suck up’ the more highly qualified students attending post-92 universities. While this rightly places some competitive pressure on post-92 institutions, the market is relying on them being fleet of foot to change rapidly while also trying to serve a more demanding type of student.
DK: Thanks Jonathan – it’s interesting to note that Willetts, Clark and Osborne have all been stronger on proclaiming the expansionist policy than senior Lib Dems. The junior coalition party’s line on the current system in England is a “pride” that they’ve made the “the system as fair as possible”.
Sal Brinton, the party’s president and author of its higher education policy paper, says she expects a commitment to review the current system to appear in the manifesto. That being the case, it does seem odd that high-profile figures have completely dismissed Labour’s proposed reduction, and would surely not support a lifting of the fee cap.
Anne-Marie, Ed Miliband has called the tuition fees policy a ‘red line’ – do you see any room for agreement between Labour and Lib Dems on this post-election?
AMC: For me, the red line positioning really stood out when the £6k fee policy was announced and since then there seems to be a ‘rise of the red-line’ from all parties. In this era of coalition politics it is a signal that this is one of the key non-negotiables if/when coalition discussions begin.
Tuition fee policy then becomes emblematic of integrity in politics. The LibDem reduction refusal struck me as slightly off, and the commitment to a review could sit alongside other party policies quite easily. Could you imagine a Lab/Lib coalition that revives the LibDems by (somewhat) reversing their 9k pact? I think you’re better placed to know whether that would be palatable to the party…
DK: I think that’s one of the great unknowns, especially as the party (its ministers at least) have put great store by the current policy as meeting the twin objectives of widening participation and being fiscally responsible. Ignoring the RAB charge of course… Jonathan, final word from you on what a Con/UKIP higher education policy might look like?
JW: What we know about UKIP Education policy which is not a lot is that they do seem to buy the notion of STEM subjects being good for the economy so there is some commonality there at least. I think international students (depending on who becomes Home Secretary) could come in for a much harder time in terms of the visa regime although interestingly UKIP have said they wouldn’t include international students in a migration cap.
I think you may see an increasing return to a binary divide with clearer paths to vocational and/or academic study. There is a danger though that under this approach with the immigration debate and a focus on vocationalism may detract from research excellence or the global aspirations of universities.
And on that the elephant in the room over EU research and EU students would be what might happen post-EU referendum in 2017?
DK: Thanks both – we’ve moved from fake moustaches through piggy banks to elephants, and there’s still over three weeks to go! The panel will return once we have all the main manifestos published with markers at the ready to draw those red lines.