This article is more than 9 years old

General Election political panel #2 – manifestos

The second political panel of the 2015 General Election campaign. In this edition, our three political wonks respond to the party manifestos and what they have to say about universities.
This article is more than 9 years old

Dewi Knight is Senior Education Adviser, China at the British Council. He previously worked in policy, strategy and communications roles for the University of Bedfordshire, The Open University and the Liberal Democrats. He is a member of Wonkhe’s Editorial Group.

Welcome to the second Wonkhe 2015 General Election political panel focussing on the recently-published election manifestos.

The panel are:

AMC-wonkhe anne-marie canningAnne-Marie Canning, Head of Widening Participation at King’s College London and a former Labour councillor



jonathan woodhead wonkheJonathan 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): Welcome to the second of our election political panels.

All the main party manifestos that deal with English higher education policy are now in. And it seems that the parties have turned into traffic wardens. Everything is being “clamped down”. London satellite campuses – “clamping down the number”; and tuition fees cut to £6,000 – “funded by clamping down on tax avoidance”. But the contrary Lib Dems promote the success of the Freedoms Act which apparently “stopped aggressive wheel clamping”…. Yes, really.

Having once been responsible for not only writing manifestos, but scanning those of other parties to look for potential agreements, I know that it’s often as important to note what’s been left out as it is to see what’s been included. Reflecting on the past week, we see a huge divergence in the emphasis on international students and part-time study for example.

Jonathan, does the tone in the Conservative manifesto on international students – far removed from the Labour and Lib Dem programmes – show that the Home Secretary has finally prevailed on this issue?

Jonathan (JW): Yes, I think the manifesto shows that the Home Office, and in particular Theresa May, has prevailed.

The issue of tackling ‘bogus’ colleges and London satellite campuses are the particular flavour of the month with Home Office Ministers. While this may play well to dog-whistle UKIP waverers it does send a negative message overseas. The fact that international students are still being lumped in with general migration is obviously a problem. But Theresa May is unlikely to continue as Home Secretary after the election, should the Conservatives form a part of a government, so there may well be an opportunity for the university sector and others to lobby a more liberal-minded Home Secretary on these issues.

DK: So, if we mark it down as a victory for Theresa May, does it also reflect the prevailing mood amongst Tory MPs and candidates?

JW: It is a real dichotomy that on the doorstep, Conservative MPs recognise the benefit of international students and their value to any local universities on their patch.

The cultural ‘soft power’ of higher education has been overlooked on this occasion but was at least recognised by William Hague, who said in a speech last December, ‘The fact that Britain remains the first destination of choice for thousands of aspiring students around the world enriches and strengthens our universities, the future of our economy and our influence in the world.’  It was a pity we couldn’t see more of this thinking in the manifesto.

DK: I don’t know if you take your morning coffee in one of the (in) famous Labour ‘controls on immigration’ mugs Anne-Marie, but could you give a brief perspective on how you see the issue of international recruitment and regulation in Labour’s manifesto?

I’m also keen to pick up the issue of part-time study – no party seriously addresses the huge fall in numbers over the last 5 years and despite the historic reference points of Tawney and the WEA in Labour’s education manifesto, part-time and adult education gets only a passing reference in the full version. Your thoughts?

Anne-Marie (AMC): I enjoy my morning brew in a (limited-edition?) ‘Can I OFFA you a cuppa?’ mug gifted to me when I completed my first OFFA agreement. A rite of passage for any Head of Widening Participation…

In terms of international student regulation – the Labour manifesto appears to offer a fairly plain and sensible approach ‘tighten the system to prevent abuse whilst still welcoming overseas university students who bring billions into Britain’. The section on immigration also makes a point of highlighting the positive contribution of talented overseas students. Nothing Marmitey about this?

And you’re right about access for mature students, a shame since Liam Byrne gave the ‘education journey’ some careful thought in his Robbins Rebooted pamphlet.

But the manifesto draws the issue of part time learners and the new technical degrees into the same sentence on Page 25. It seems Labour policy makers believe this new form of qualification will entice mature and part-time learners back to higher education. One of the reasons mooted for the recent drop in mature students is that fewer employers are sponsoring a return to learning for their workers. From my experience of working with mature learners, the ‘learn while you earn’ model is most attractive.

One of my favourite pieces in the manifesto is the pledge for greater encouragement and support of our universities ‘outside of the South-East’ as key drivers of regional economies. We also know that participation varies dramatically across the UK. So as a Northerner and graduate of the University of York I can’t help but think it’s about time we had a greater focus here.

DK: Both Lib Dem and Tory manifestos back economic development and devolution within England, with a focus on skills and tech development. But perhaps the links to universities are not as clearly set out as they could be.

As we discussed last week, the Lib Dems do pledge to hold a review of HE finance in England, but perhaps more striking is the comment on reforming regulation. Is this the bell tolling for HEFCE, OFFA and QAA as independent stand-alone organisations? Your mug may become a collector’s item…

The Lib Dem manifesto shares Labour’s approach on international students – a potential Lib-Lab HE minister could certainly kick-start their tenure with a ‘Britain is open for business’ message to potential students overseas.

On part-time, the party’s curious mix of defensive and positive message on student numbers does seem to gloss over the part-time situation. This comes despite Nick Clegg’s consistent commitment to promoting the part-time fee changes in England as being a real ‘deliverable’ of the coalition agreement on higher education.

Jonathan, you mentioned the UKIP factor. Theirs is a rather eclectic mix of higher education policies isn’t it?

JW: Yes, the UKIP manifesto does have a curious potpourri of HE policies. It is enlightened on the issue of the need to take international students out of any migration cap, as it recognises most students are here in the short-term.

The manifesto also makes some rather obvious commitments such as ‘EU students would be charged the same as international students if Britain were to leave the EU’.  Well, of course they would, as you would no longer be an EU member!

These obvious facts however don’t disguise the more serious point that there are issues around EU students and the poor level of repayment of tuition fee loans. This will be an issue any future UK Government will have to tackle.

Still on Europe, UKIP are very quiet (silent?) on where any replacement funding for research would come from. It is well known that many institutions in the UK do well from EU funding. This lack of clarity is quite a concern because even the smallest and specialist institutions will have connections in Europe as the recent UUK delegation to Brussels showed. It may be possible to develop and enhance further research connections outside of Europe and many institutions do but this may take time and is one area where the EU is quite strong.

UKIP, like most of the political parties, are concerned about uptake of STEM subjects. Clearly STEM subjects are vital to help grow the economy but this often overlooks the contribution of the creative industries which in London is second only to the financial services sector.

Whether waiving fees for STEM subjects will increase uptake I’m not sure as I think more needs to be done to interest young people in schools to encourage further study in those subjects in the first place.

DK: I’d argue that both UKIP and Green manifestos share a ‘party like its 1999′ theme.

On the one hand, pledging to scrap the 50% participation target that’s not formally existed for a long while, and on the other hand pledging to reintroduce student grants, which have been back for a good few years. What’s your take on the fee-abolishing, grant-reintroducing, loan-writing off Green Party manifesto Anne-Marie?

AMC: Are people really still huffing about the 50% target…!

This is a ‘crisis’ higher education manifesto from the Greens. We are told that universities are now privatised and those at the top are getting fat on the profits. This feels like something written by an angry students’ union officer rather than his royal badness, Prince.

The Green manifesto recognises free education catered for the few but now we have much higher rates of participation it’s not clear how free education would work.

In the following line the Greens suggest they expect to see a fall in young student numbers: ‘the current level of applications to study at university reflects the paucity of other opportunities available to young people’. I guess the vision of a German higher education system has informed their thoughts. The Green vision of free education doesn’t currently include postgraduate study.

The reduction in adult education is highlighted with an accompanying promise to revive it – but it is not clear what actual steps will be taken to do this. I expected the Greens manifesto might explore the co-operative university model a la Spain’s Mondragon – which makes sense when you add up their concerns with the current system.

So what’s missing? There’s nothing said about research other than the REF being bad for our academics. There’s no vision of the bigger picture for higher education and what the role of our universities is in the health of our country and the wider world.

DK: We’ve finished there with a couple of Prince references, but our manifesto analysis has included both those ‘who would be King’ and those of the potential coalition ‘kingmakers’ in the smaller parties. Are we further forward on understanding the potential next coalition programme on higher education? Will there be a merger of statutory bodies? Will tuition fees come down? Will international students be viewed more positively? Will the decline in part-time numbers be addressed and included in a review of English HE finance? We’ll reconvene to see if the campaign and continuing manifesto (including the forthcoming SNP manifesto) reaction helps us, and the parties, figure it out.

Leave a Reply