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General Election political panel #3: the final stretch

In the final leg of the General Election campaign, our political panel meets again to review all the latest developments for higher education and beyond.
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.

Our panel gets together again as we reach the final few hours of the campaign. We looked at the ‘English’ manifestos last time, so as we now assess the campaign and coalition red-lines, we can only really start with the last manifesto to be published, that of the SNP.

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 Knight (DK): It now seems clear that a “progressive alliance” on HE funding could mean a cut in tuition fees for England and a subsequent increase in the block grant to Scotland and Wales. Is it going to happen, and is it a winner for students and universities across the UK?

Anne-Marie (AMC): I guess you could call it a progressive alliance if you believe the way universities in Scotland are funded is progressive.  Poor students who receive Scottish free education also receive much lower levels of financial support for their living costs. So it’s good to see a commitment in the SNP manifesto to uplift the levels of support to £7,500.

The SNP manifesto simply states supporting the reduction in tuition fees across the UK. I think over the long bank holiday weekend the Labour leadership has been quite clear about coalition with the SNP: a no-go. UUK have published a blog on the key issues.

DK: It will certainly be interesting if a Labour administration, in whatever form, brings forward proposals to reduce English fees. It would be difficult to see the SNP (and Plaid) vote against a measure that should provide a ‘Barnett Bonus’ for the devolved governments.

Jonathan – William Hague wouldn’t rule out a rise in the maximum fee level over the weekend, and of course the £9,000 is now worth closer to £8,000. Is this just a practical approach from the Conservatives?

Jonathan (JW): It is interesting how William Hague was asked about the tuition fee level after the election – when he will no longer be an MP to vote on it! I think in truth the answer is much more pragmatic rather than a sinister plot being hatched in the Treasury or BIS. In real terms the £9,000 fee has been eroded in inflation since 2012 and clearly costs have also increased especially in London institutions.

The suggestion to raise undergraduate fees may also be a response to murmurings from the Russell Group who have long since stated they would like higher fees and also the possibility of Oxford & Cambridge going private if they aren’t allowed that freedom.

In economic terms undergraduate higher education is still seen as a ‘Giffen good’ and many young (and older) people aspire to complete a degree. However a much larger fees hike across the board could well test that philosophy.

DK: That’s certainly an interesting perspective, and both Lib Dem and Conservative manifestos proclaim the increase in English undergraduate numbers.

When we consider those two divergent scenarios – a potential reduction in fees to £6,000 or a relatively minor inflationary uplift – then it puts the position of the Lib Dems as potential coalition partners for either side in stark focus. Move one way and it brings the questions of policy and principle to the forefront; move the other and it’s an acceptance that the current system is, at the very least, a medium term answer and that the 2010 decision was the difficult, but correct, one.

How about a situation where HE moves back into the Education department, with Nick Clegg as DPM and Education Secretary, and this is near the top of his in-tray? Not impossible. But perhaps that’s too much post-match analysis.

Anne-Marie – what’s your general reflections on the campaign and the prominence of higher education and students’ issues?

AMC: It’s not just the highly selective institutions that have been raising the inflationary element. Professor Brian Cantor (Vice-Chancellor at Bradford) has repeatedly raised this issue. Speaking to an academic a few days ago it seems to be received wisdom in the sector that universities can expect a total uncapping of fees from the Conservatives.

HEPI predicted higher education wouldn’t be a big issue in the election and it has been rather zeitgeisty for commentators to say ‘higher education isn’t a doorstep’ issue. I can only guess they’ve not been out of the doorstep recently. I’ve worn my shoe leather down in a few (contrasting) constituencies over the past month and I can safely say that it has been in the top 5 talking points with voters.

Whatever you think of the policy, the 6k fee pledge has made higher education a doorstep issue and those conversations have been some of the most interesting discussions I’ve had with voters. We’ve also seen an increased focus on students – not just as game-changing voters but as campaigning forces. The campaign to register; the controversial NUS Liar Liar campaign; and the oodles of students out campaigning for their politics.

For me, the formidable Labour ground campaign and the increasingly innovative digital content from all parties have been particular highlights of this election.  But you’re right Dewi, now is not the time for post-match analysis, now is the time to get out and vote!  See you on the flip side?

JW: I think students have been a driving force in this election but actually on issues much more varied than whether fees are £6k or £9k. After all they know that politicians in other parties have broken promises on fees before – not just in 2010. I know that housing and future employment opportunities are big issues for students and soon to be graduates, are a test for all the political parties. I think the fact that the economy is growing can give some confidence to graduates entering the employment market but clearly more needs to be done in all regions of the UK.

On a personal level it will be sad not to see David Willetts have a direct role in the HE debate after the election. After having been MP for Havant for 23 years and holding the HE portfolio in Opposition in a variety of forms, for many years, he will be a loss to Parliament. I only hope that whoever is HE Minister after the election will show the same level of commitment and interest to the sector.

DK: Certainly agree with you Anne Marie on students as ‘campaigning forces’. The SU here at Bedfordshire have led an energetic and fun voter registration campaign, and working with them, we’ve even secured a polling station at our Bedford campus. So there’s no excuse not to roll out of halls and into the polling booth!

I, and many others, would certainly echo your comments regarding David Willets, Jonathan. It’s good to see that he’s still seeking to contribute, not least in his new role at the Resolution Foundation.

On a general note – it’s not been a campaign in Mario Cuomo’s image. You’d struggle to find the poetry over the last 6 weeks. A tunnel vision of budgets and spending commitments – not expansive and exciting debates over big ideas. But perhaps those debates are to come in the hours, days and weeks to follow…

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