Twenty fifteen is the year that we need to start paying attention to party policymaking at all levels. With any one or more of eight potential parties likely to form a government, niche areas like HE are ripe for horse-trading and deal making. With the Green Party increasing their membership and now gaining ground in the opinion polls, not least amongst students, it is a good time to review the state of their higher education policies.
The Green Party have long promised to abolish student fees entirely, with a wider support package forming a part of what will easily be the most radical policy proposed by anyone in 2015, the UK Citizens Income. Put simply, all existing benefits plus the tax-free earnings allowance would, under a Green government, be transformed into an equal single payment to every adult citizen of the UK, paid for from the existing welfare budget plus higher taxes on earnings above this level. This basic income would allow us to make life decisions based on reasons other than economic ones – so people would choose to study for reasons of interest and personal fulfilment, rather than in order to earn enough to live.
Depending on your personal political standpoint, this is either an exhilarating or terrifying plan. It would finally break down the link between labour value and the ability to live, challenge low pay and effectively abolish poverty. However, barring a very unlikely set of circumstances it is not going to happen in 2015.
The Green Party leader Natalie Bennett has linked the costs associated with removing tuitions fees to an increase in business taxes. Of all the positions detailed relating to higher education, this seems the most likely to be brought into coalition negotiations.
But the question should be: how can we make a judgement on how keen the Green Party would be to influence government university policy in as an extreme minority partner commanding only one or two votes, and in their best case scenario of being one of several other minorities in either a coalition government or a confidence and supply arrangement? And what they would do if the party were minded to use their limited policy influence in this way?
The policy book
There is a surprising amount of current Green Party HE policy, though how much finds its way into a manifesto remains to be seen (for instance, the European Election mini-manifesto affirms free education as an aspiration but does not offer details). These policies form a part of the party’s Policies for a Sustainable Society (PSS), which constitutes a ‘book of longer-term policies’ that have been proposed and agreed upon at their conference.
This is an evolving body of policy (and explanatory preambles), changing conference by conference, and can be seen to be a summary of the views held by members, as it is members – not party officials – that propose and agree motions.
So what there is may be out of date, and it may not reflect the views of the green ‘surge’ that has joined the party over the last few months or indeed over the last parliament.
Most wonks will enjoy the Higher Education preamble (ED230-233), which sets out the place of higher education within a society focused on ‘sustainable living and not consumption-led growth’. As these ideas underpin the wider philosophical basis of Green Party policy, the emphasis is on the need to modify education provision (including a move away from a perception of HE as something that happens straight after A-levels) to meet these goals.
ED233 is one of the best short conceptualisations of the ‘crisis’ facing HE that I have seen for a long while, notable in that it links student and staff experience rather than seeing the student experience as being institutionally driven. It is worth quoting in full:
Departments are closing, students are being forced to pay increasing fees for their education, lecturers are working longer hours and receiving worsening pay and conditions and the student to tutor ratio is increasing.
Other aspects of the agreed policy position are slightly more surprising. Who would have thought, for instance, that the Green Party would favour maintaining subject diversity with a particular focus on manufacturing and industry related subjects? Or – perhaps most surprising of all – calling for a system of national accreditation for HE courses?
That latter one (covered in ED237 and ED238) is aimed at assuring academic standards across institutions. It highlights the nationalising tendency of the left of the Green Party, effectively returning us to CNAA days, and functioning as an eerie echo of some of David Willetts’ wilder ideas.
External accreditation is also raised within plans concerning access to HE (ED244), with institutions funded to deliver externally accredited ‘access courses’ to those they deem to have the potential to study at HE level. This policy muddies the water as regards institutional autonomy even further – institutions are trusted to identify those with HE potential (you’ll note no mention of tariffs or other metrics), but the access courses they used must not be accredited by the institution in question.
Green research (in higher education) policy is another expression of the tension between an anti-commercial mindset and a need to encourage the development of green and sustainable technology (a tension beautifully described in more general terms by Paul Kingsnorth). There is a particularly interesting piece of language (ED242) around ‘sufficient funding to encourage independent and ethical research’, which almost seemed to suggest a preference for non-targeted research funding and curiosity-led research.
Green international policy is interesting, to say the least. I can hear the voice of Farage in the line: ‘In some cases this can lead [Institutions] to accept international students who are less able than EU students who they reject’ (ED245), whereas ‘Higher Education Institutions will be properly funded by the state’ (ED246) seems wonderful, if perhaps over-hopeful. The two strands mesh together in the international development section of ED247, which would use state funding to support students in or from developing countries where a skills shortage exists.
The only green (as in environmental) polices overlap with the existing HEFCE sustainable development scheme, which has gone a long way to addressing these issues the party raises.
A lot of this policy is clearly outdated, outrun by developments in policy by the current and previous administrations. The entire party policy area needs a comprehensive review, and although I reached out to the party for comment on this, there was no response. As such it is moot how much of what is currently on the books would make it in to an election manifesto. The language of free education has formed a part of recent Green rhetoric, so it is to be expected that – at the very least – a reduction in student fees would be a primary policy goal.
The position on staff conditions is very interesting – and plays into wider Green concerns around work and society. It is possible to see the language around independent and ethical research, free from commercial bias, as presenting the beginnings of a move towards academic autonomy. When this position is seen alongside the nationalising tendency – though external accreditation is a huge surprise to me – we can perceive the welcome beginnings of a HE policy based around the needs of academics and students, rather than employers and institutions.
It is easy for a minor party to make unfunded promises of more spending in any area, and the Greens may well be as guilty of this as the Liberal Democrats were in 2010. But in an unpredictable political year, it’s hard to know which policies may ultimately influence future government thinking.