The UK wakes up this morning to a de facto Conservative majority, leaving decimation amongst the Liberal Democrats and Labour Party. But what happens now for our universities?
The next parliament will be dominated by two things: the Conservative manifesto commitment on a referendum on EU membership and the fall out from the SNP surge in Scotland. David Cameron and George Osborne may now find it more difficult to manage a majority (or near majority) Conservative parliamentary party than they did a Lib Dem-Con coalition.
An EU referendum is scheduled for 2017, meaning this will be a big issue for at least 12 months from mid-2016. This has real implications for universities given their reliance on international student numbers and European Union research funding. It is hard to imagine that the sector will be silent on this issue. David Cameron and George Osborne may be sympathetic to continued membership but their own parliamentary party will pull in another direction. How that section of the party will behave in advance of the vote and latterly should the result go against them, is anyone’s guess.
2017 might also define the moment at which Cameron steps down as Conservative leader, as he indicated during this campaign.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may also take a divergent view on Europe during such a long drawn out referendum campaign and its result. If we thought this election led to unpredictability, we ain’t seen nothing compared to an EU referendum.
The SNP block now finds itself facing a 5-year fixed term parliament for a Conservative government. Under such circumstances the pressure will be intense on Nicola Sturgeon to campaign for a second independence referendum at the Holyrood elections in 2016. Given the way in which last night’s vote has gone, who would bet against Scottish independence and an EU exit in the next parliament? These macro-political questions may well make the last 5 years of arguments about fees caps, private providers and repayment rates look like small beer.
With Vince Cable’s loss in Twickenham and the Lib Dems thrust from power, there will definitely be a new Business Secretary, and possibly a new HE minister (although Greg Clark was re-elected in his Tunbridge Wells seat). Tory rising star Sajid Javid is tipped to take on the business brief, perhaps with some departmental changes involving a rumoured BIS and DCMS merger. The HE brief could stay in such a department, but a move to the Department for Education shouldn’t be ruled out.
Taking assumptions in George Osborne’s last Budget, we can assume that unprotected Whitehall departments will face huge cuts – BIS alone may need to find £4-5bn in savings. Tough decisions will follow as the axe hovers over WP, skills, science, HE – and a rise in tuition fees shouldn’t be ruled out to help ease the departmental cuts. Indeed just last week, the Conservatives refused to rule out raising fees in the coming parliament.
In all likelihood, the UK government stance on immigration policy will, almost unbelievably, get much tighter. It may be that Theresa May, after five years’ service in the toughest job in government (not to mention an opportunity to broaden her experience) seeks a move to the Foreign Office. In any case, we can expect a continuity Home Secretary who is a major figure, and the Conservative manifesto outlines plans for:
- reforming the student visa system with new measures to tackle abuse and reduce the numbers of students overstaying once their visas expire
- clamping down on the number of so-called ‘satellite campuses’ opened in London by universities located elsewhere in the UK
- reviewing the highly trusted sponsor system for student visas
- introduction of exit checks will allow us to place more responsibility on visa sponsors for migrants who overstay, with sanctions for those colleges or businesses that fail to ensure that migrants comply with the terms of their visa
Note, on the final point, the proposal for a positive duty on institutions to ensure departure of their students where appropriate, which is both substantial and onerous. Finally, it can be assumed with total confidence that students will not be excluded from the net migration calculation, quite possibly for the duration of the Parliament. In other words, very bad news for the sector in this set of policies.
There are other things in the Conservative manifesto that might be revisited – a “teaching REF”, more work to do on information provision, shorter degrees etc. A majority might also give the government the impetus to put forward some much needed legislation on HE regulation. However, the story of the night are the macro effects of the incoming government – as the above policy details tend to wind up being nuanced in their transition to government. These are the sorts of things that will greatly depend on the character and priorities of the responsible ministerial team.
There’s plenty more we can’t yet predict, but we’ll cover developments as and when they happen here on Wonkhe.