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How will universities swing in a hung parliament?

With the election getting closer, but the ultimate result looking as uncertain as ever, Martin McQuillan predicts a confusing five years ahead for higher education. How will the sector respond to a rainbow coalition, perhaps without the mandate to pass primary legislation? And how will universities maintain the stability they crave on a fundamentally unstable landscape?
This article is more than 8 years old

Martin McQuillan is a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) at Kingston University, London.

With only 29 days to go until the General Election, the higher education sector is looking at the political landscape with as much bewilderment as everyone else.

All polls suggest this will be the most closely fought election in years and the possible outcomes may not be good news for our universities. While the question of who will form the next government is too close to call, there are some things that we can say about the next parliament with a degree of certainty.

Firstly, it is likely that come the morning of May 8th, we will be presented with a hung parliament. As happened in 2010 there will then follow negotiations over what shape the next government will take, including the possible drafting of a coalition agreement with its attendant broken promises. However, it is not at all clear if either the Conservatives or Labour have much stomach for 5 years of coalition with the Liberal Democrats or anyone else for that matter. Instead we may end up with a minority administration making deals with other parties on a vote-by-vote basis. The novelty might be appealing for a while, but as with the last interminable parliament, the next one will also be term-fixed which means the potential for five very unappealing years.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition legislated for fixed term parliaments. The rather thin argument at the time was that markets and business had to be reassured that the Coalition would last the course. In the end, the result was several drawn-out parliamentary sessions in which little substantive legislation was passed whilst the Coalition partners drifted apart.

The real difficulty will come in the next parliament if a minority government attempts to preside over a full 5 year fixed term. There are provisions within the Fixed-term Parliament Act 2011 for the dissolution of the House. Either the government loses two votes of no confidence (the second must follow the first within 14 days) or two thirds of the total membership of House of Commons (including vacant seats) votes for an early election. The legislation has been drafted to be preferential for government longevity, so things would have to reach a pretty chaotic state for either scenario to come to fruition.

However, the next parliament promises a potential new world of rainbow coalitions and tartan alliances. How the higher education sector will interact with government in such a situation is not at all clear. No one in any of the bodies that seek to speak for universities has ever had the experience of engaging with a political landscape of such complexity before. And there is much at stake in the next parliament for higher education including the state of tuition fees, the future of the science budget, the prospects for widening participation, the numbers cap, postgraduate loans, degree apprenticeships, the next REF, the need for legislation around private providers and so on. However, what becomes of advocacy for universities in a fixed-term parliament based upon vote-by-vote consensus is anything but clear.

If university leaders ever speak in unison it is to say, whatever government policy might be, we need ‘stability’ and ‘certainty’ in order to plan for the long term. Although a fixed-term parliament is now longer than the average lifespan of a UK vice chancellor (4.6 years), higher education itself works at a relatively glacial pace (intercalated medical degrees can take up to seven years, for example).

The early years of the last parliament saw seemingly ad hoc policy announcements around the implementation of the new funding model. We might look back on this with nostalgia. The prospect of a minority government makes it more likely that ministers would use statutory instruments to enact proposals that could not make it through a divided House of Commons, leading to less public scrutiny of policy making. This is especially true of higher education as an issue on which a besieged government might not want to waste the political capital of a parliamentary vote.

However the chips fall on May 7th, there will be two big issues for the next parliament to face – both with significant consequences for universities. If the Conservatives form the next government they are pledged to an in-out referendum on membership of the European Union. University leaders will have to take sides on this. The turmoil that will follow from it, either way, will rumble on for some time.  This is perhaps why David Cameron has decided not to hang around to see the Conservative party torn apart by the referendum result. If Labour form the next government they are confronted with the problem of elections to the Holyrood parliament in 2016.

Faced with a large SNP presence at Westminster and a renewed mandate in Edinburgh, a Miliband government would come under extreme pressure to grant a second independence referendum. Labour have been here before. When Jim Callaghan accepted that the outcome of the 1978 devolution referendum should be interpreted as a ‘no’, the SNP moved quickly to work with Liberals and Conservatives to collapse the government, ironically giving Scotland 18 years of Tory rule. A progressive socio-economic alliance wasn’t the issue for the SNP then and won’t be next time around either.

As with John Major’s shrinking parliamentary majority between 1992 and 1997, governments who find themselves in the minority discover that it is all but impossible to satisfy the avaricious demands of the backbench alliances that keep them afloat. The Conservatives would be pulled to the right on Europe; Labour would be sucked into the mire of Scottish independence.

With the bar set so high for dissolution, the next five years are unlikely to provide ‘stability’ or ‘certainty’.

Then there is the business of what the Institute for Fiscal Studies describes as ‘the largest fiscal consolidation out of 32 advanced economies over the period from 2015 to 2019’, planned at varying speeds by both George Osborne and Ed Balls. Who will speak for universities, assuming anyone is listening, in this landscape?

Jeremy Clayton, director of knowledge and innovation strategy and international at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills told an uncomfortable home truth to the sector at a UUK event on 25th March when he reportedly said ‘I have heard politicians from across the political spectrum say that universities are feather-bedded, worse than bankers and just not living in the real world.’

If the next parliament offers 5 years of high politics and Westminster knockabout, universities will need to begin thinking about how to engage with a chaotic parliament, so that they can avoid being one of the biggest losers of this election.

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