LIVE: UUK/CASE – Political affairs in higher education forum 2016

The Political Affairs in Higher Education forum, now in its third year, brings together senior leaders of policy, public relations and political affairs from across the higher education sector. Key themes today are:

  • The future of British politics
  • The Higher Education and Research Bill – what happens next?
  • How to talk about immigration in 2016
  • Effective engagement with Brussels
  • Working with parliamentary researchers to get your message across


  • And we’re finished…

    And after a quick run through of the technicals of how the HE Bill will progress through the Lords, today’s conference comes to an end. It’s been a fascinating day, and there will be more reflection and debate on the issues raised here on Wonkhe in the coming weeks and days. Universities have a whole range of challenges for surviving and thriving in public life, and its now up to the delegates in this room, and all over the country, to turn those challenges into successes.

    5 years ago
  • Debate: the HE Bill

    The HE Bill “has not really engaged the political media”, probably because of Brexit, says our chair Isabel Oakeshott. Many journalists are only aware on the periphery that this Bill is even happening, but they do not know just how “radical” it is.

    Blackman-Woods – “universities have retreated into their shell on this Bill” and have gone for their comfort zone of worrying about Brexit and international students. Admittedly, the Bill is difficult to get the media interested in, but it doesn’t look like the sector has really tried that hard to create public outcry. The government also seems completely oblivious to the damage the Bill could do the universities’ international standing – “we’re just not hearing” enough uproar from the sector, says Blackman-Woods.

    5 years ago
  • The Bill in the Lords

    We appropriately now move to Baroness Brown. She explains that many peers will be taking an interest in the Bill, and that many have high opinions of universities and there are several former vice chancellors, academics, and chancellors amongst the upper chamber.

    The best hope for making the Bill as good as it can be will be to ensure that the debate focuses on issues that are in the Bill, and Baroness Brown advises that lobbyists talking to peers should focus on matters pertinent to the Bill rather than Brexit and other issues of great import.

    Some peers have their particular hobby-horses that they will focus on, including TEF, university title, and UKRI. Jo Johnson and Viscount Younger (government minister) expect there to be more amendments in the Lords, on top of the tweaks from Jo Johnson a couple of weeks ago. Peers have had two briefings with Jo Johnson already to discuss the Bill, and the government is not willing to change the major reforms proposed in the Bill such as the creation of UKRI and OfS. The Lords will want to make the Bill better, but not completely overturn it.

    Some peers “feel the sector is being a bit whimpy” about pushing back on the Bill, and that “vice chancellors are so keen to get their hands on higher fees they don’t want to rock the boat”. Make of that what you will…


    Other big issues will include institutional autonomy, the autonomy of the research councils, a continued high-bar for entry into the sector, separating out quality and standards, and the regulatory role of the OfS. A lot of these matters are areas where the government claims to share the intentions of the Bill’s critics, and the difficulty comes in the details and drafting of the legislation.

    No doubt the Bill’s journey through the upper house will be incredibly interesting.

    5 years ago
  • Higher Education and Research Bill – the story so far

    We’ve made it to nearly 3.30pm today and have barely yet discussed the most significant piece of legislation concerning universities for a generation – a sign of the times perhaps?

    Speaking in this session are Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP for Durham City, and Baroness Brown of Cambridge, former Vice Chancellor of Aston University.

    Roberta is taking us through Labour’s approach to the HE Bill and some of the more difficult issues to raise, including Brexit, international students, and the ins and outs of TEF. More effort was put into student representation, widening access and participation, opening up the market to new HE providers, the parameters of university title, and collaboration between OfS and UKRI.

    Into the Lords, the focus from Labour peers will be on TEF, the use of university title (particularly for “single-subject universities”, university autonomy, international students, and OfS and UKRI.

    Blackman-Woods: Bill in the Commons has been “quite a disappointing experience” but “we suspect they will get a much tougher ride in the Lords”, where the numbers are there to challenge the government, particularly on how the Teaching Excellence Framework operates, and the use of university title.

    5 years ago
  • Differences between parties

    There are significant differences between what Labour and Conservative MPs want to hear about from universities, and also their general reputations. As mentioned above, Labour MPs think much more positively of universities than Conservative MPs.



    Conservative MPs are also more likely to want to hear from universities about how they will support economic growth, productivity, and up-skilling the work-force. Labour MPs are more interested in hearing about how Brexit might harm universities and the benefits of international students.



    5 years ago
  • What Parliamentarians think of higher education

    So what is universities’ reputation and standing in Parliament and wider public life? ComRes polled Parliamentarians on universities’ strengths and weaknesses.

    According to MPs, universities do well at “enhancing the role of the UK internationally” and “contributing to national productivity and economic growth”. They also do somewhat well, but not excellently, at “demonstrating the value of internationalism”, “demonstrating the value of university education”, and “demonstrating the value of research and innovation”.

    A big worry is that, compared to last year, universities are doing less well at “producing graduates with the skills the country needs” in the view of Parliamentarians.

    Universities, according to MPs, do not do well at “tackling extremism on campus”, “improving social mobility”, and “using their funding efficiently”.

    On the whole, the Labour Party has a significantly more positive view of universities than the Conservative Party. Conservatives have a particularly low view of universities’ ability to produce well-skilled graduates and to tackle extremism.

    Universities have a significantly more positive view of themselves than MPs do…


    5 years ago
  • Tom Mludzinski – ComRes

    Now we’re beginning a deliciously titled session entitled “What Parliamentarians think of higher education?”, from Tom Mludzinski of ComRes.

    He begins with the bleak: Remain voters have had a very emotional response to the Leave vote, particularly the young. 46% think that the referendum has damaged the UK’s international reputation. And there appears to be very little regret: 3% of Leave voters would now vote Remain, and vice versa.

    ComRes has also polled the public’s expectations of the eventual Brexit outcome. 52% want us to remain in the single market with limits on immigration (the ‘have your cake and eat it’ option?), and 52% want immigration to fall at least. There is a significant segment of the population – 27% – that expect some EU citizens to leave the country…


    5 years ago
  • Break

    We’re just taking a quick coffee break, and we’ll be back shortly for a few hours of discussion about the Higher Education and Research Bill.

    5 years ago
  • Discussion on government machinery

    DIT might be waiting for its day in the sun, but will it still be working on facilitating higher education exports? To a certain extent yes, as UK Trade and Investment has not changed and is part of DIT. The new and interesting bit of DIT is the ‘Trade Policy Group’ – this will be dealing with trade deals and export strategies, but it is still hiring and still gearing up. It will be in the coming months that it begins its engagement with ‘key sectors’. This might involve higher education – let’s wait and see.

    We have another question on special advisers – particularly on their influence over DExEU and No.10. “If we were talking about powerful advisers who have a grip over policy in 2002, we’d be talking about Ed Balls”.

    You can read more about the Cabinet committees here on the Institute for Government blog.

    How will scrutiny and influence work for all this?

    Firstly, a vote on Article 50 in Parliament, which now looks nearly certain to be confirmed by the Supreme Court and also very likely to be approved by Parliament. Secondly, in select committees, all of whom have launched Brexit-related inquiry. This includes the DExEU select committee, but it may be too large and too cumbersome to be effective. Thirdly, there is the interesting suggestion that MPs could have access to the Brexit negotiations and relevant documents. This will require significant facilitation and organisation, but will be interesting. Fourthly, MPs will have to have a vote on the final deal regardless. The Brexit deal will have to be acceptable enough to Parliament, but the ‘cliff-edge’ of no-deal at the end of the two years negotiation process will be too much to stomach for many MPs, who may have to approve a deal that they do not really like.

    When it comes to Article 50, how much will actually be agreed in those negotiations? The divorce settlement is very technical – “what happens to the wine cellar, what happens to pensions etc.” – and should hopefully be relatively easy. The meaty stuff – trade and market access, immigration etc. – is a separate negotiation and will likely take more time. So there may have to be an interim deal, but it depends what the government wants. It could get very messy.


    5 years ago
  • Resourcing Brexit and making decisions

    The Autumn Statement clarified the available resources for DIT and DExEU, but did not clarify how other departments planning to reduce their spending (especially BEIS, DEFRA, and others) were supposed to do so whilst working on Brexit. There has also been no clarity on which government projects might be dumped in order to free up capacity for Brexit. The key point is that all departments, and not just the three Brexiteers, will be under significant stress during this process.

    And then there’s the Cabinet…

    “Cabinet is not where the key decisions are made in government” – there are too many agendas and there is too much to get through. Instead, the PM now uses Cabinet committees, sub-committees, and taskforces – essentially all the same thing – bringing together smaller groups of ministers together to make decisions. Theresa May chairs 10 out of 21 of these decision-making committees. It is an increase in relative power of the PM. Greg Clark is on a lot of them. Justine Greening is not.

    The big one, of course, is the Cabinet Committee for Exiting the European Union. DExEU will provide the secretariat to this committee and will effectively decide which politically contentious decisions are passed up to it. This committee will rule on issues where individual departments and ministers cannot agree. Crucially, it is evenly split between Remainers and Leavers.

    5 years ago
  • Brexit: What is happening inside government?

    And we’re back, this time with Oliver Ilott of the Institute for Government –  the non-partisan “government processes” think tank. “The IoG always finds the most boring line on any given topic”, but Brexit is different, because Brexit is all about the processes of government.

    We’re acronym-tastic here: FCO (Foreign Office), DExEU (Exiting the EU, pronounced “Dexyou”), and D.I.T. (International Trade – “they don’t like being called Dit, it’s diminutive”).

    DExEU is where the real fun is happening, as it’s where all the actual international trade work will be happening until we’ve actually left the EU, and since the 90s the EU effectively stopped being ‘foreign policy’ – other departments have their own relationships with the EU rather than the FCO.

    DExEU has two jobs: firstly, to coordinate other departments’ work around Brexit. DExEU is very small by government department standards, and its role is not to think through all the problems created by Brexit. This is why there is no ‘universities specialist’ in DExEU – they will coordinate the specialists in BEIS and DfE. DExEU’s second job will be to coordinate with the EU Commission (importantly, the Commission specifically). This is where the heavy lifting of Brexit negotiations will take place.

    One of the (many) unanswered questions is whether DExEU is the only department in the room when it talks to the EU Commission, or whether it will bring along specialists from other departments.

    5 years ago
  • Lunch

    With that we break for lunch – we’ll be back about an hour’s time.

    5 years ago
  • Not a level playing field…

    One comment from a delegate from a post-92 university on lobbying over international students: “Could UUK please keep the Russell Group in check?” This seems to be an area where some in the sector feel that others are not “mucking in” collectively…

    UUK are really in a bind when it comes to a ‘differentiated system’ of visa access, but it does look like TEF is being stepped away from when it comes to measuring “quality”, but the government is looking for some sort of constructive solution. Will “compliance” suffice as a measure of quality for all universities? The Home Office do appear ready to engage with good practice in universities when it comes to compliance, and this seems to earn some sympathy. That said, will this just leave universities even more in the position of ‘border police’?

    The discussion revolves around continued anxiety, particularly in post-92 institutions, about how different institutions are facing very different risks when it comes to a differentiated ‘quality system’. Watch this space…


    5 years ago
  • Lobbying on immigration: a new approach

    Karmjit recommends that universities change their messaging. Need to move away from “international students bring £x million in income” and towards “international students spend £x million in their local areas”. We also need new allies, particularly from Conservative MPs and even some liberal-Leave supporters, to communicate universities’ message.

    The message must link back to the wider economy, industrial strategy, and regional development, all of which are government priorities. Facts matter still, but not just GDP contributions and economic stats, but also public opinion polls – we are still talking to politicians after all.

    Karmjit (in jest): “I did see Nick Timothy in the street the other day and considered whether I should just tackle him…”

    The focus of lobbying of course has to be towards No. 10, but there is only so far as this will go. There has actually been a bit more engagement with the Home Office, if not with Amber Rudd herself, who must tow the party line. There are more friends on the Conservative back benches than are typically expected, particularly in constituencies with post-92 institutions.

    5 years ago
  • Workshop: What can universities do to influence the immigration debate?

    We now move into smaller workshop sessions, and we’re in a packed room with Karmjit Kaur, Political Affairs Manager at UUK.

    Vice chancellors tell UUK that immigration is a priority issue for them, even more important than Brexit and the Higher Education and Research Bill. Aside: perhaps this is due to very ambitious expansion targets… The UK is loosing its market share of international student numbers and it is a hostile environment.

    The message from the Home Office appears to be “some students are good, and some are bad”.

    The vice chancellor delegation on the PM’s India trip was effectively shut out from time with the PM and the Secretary for International Trade…

    There is great anxiety about Amber Rudd’s speech to Conservative Party Conference back in October. The overriding priority for UUK is to influence the outcome of the upcoming Home Office consultation so as to prevent a decline in international students’ and staff numbers and to prevent any kind of differentiation between universities on quality.

    The strategy now is to turn the discussion on Brexit around towards how universities and international students can contribute to local economic growth, local industrial strategy, and national ‘soft power’. Interestingly, we may see universities becoming more honest about how international students cross subsidise UK students…


    5 years ago
  • Sunder Katwala – Talking about immigration in 2016

    Next we have Sunder Katwala, Director of British Future, a think tank that specialises in immigration and integration policy and debate. He’s got some messages that certainly will challenge the sector to change its messaging on immigration.

    Immigration was why we had the EU referendum, and it was why Remain lost. Cameron and the Remain campaigners completely failed to reassure voters on immigration. The vote to Leave was effectively “a vote of no confidence in successive governments’ policies on immigration”, both Labour and Conservative.

    This presents an exceptionally challenging environment for sectors that benefit from immigration – Katwala: “if you double down on what you said before, you will do no better”.

    British Future survey the public on their views on immigration, and there are at least some areas of relatively common ground. Voters have differing views on different categories of immigration in different sectors of work and different types of economic migration. There is a lot up for grabs in post-Brexit UK immigration policy, and the public are generally sympathetic to student and skilled-worker migration in particular.

    The referendum was a great example of what doesn’t work. Saying “I’m cleverer and have got the facts” doesn’t work anymore. But you can get a surprisingly long way by acknowledging pressures, and “open vs closed” is a really bad way to frame the new politics. “There’s about a quarter of the population that really likes open, and a quarter that really likes closed, but the vast majority are in the middle and shouldn’t be forced to chose between one or another extreme”. We can find the right balance to still succeed in the globalised, open, modern world.

    Long term, universities need to depolarise this debate. Loudly proclaiming “we are international” sounds like “not in our name – we don’t know who these oiks are” to many local communities. Yet universities are better placed than most to engage with local communities on the matter of immigration and to bridge the polarisation, rather than exacerbate it.

    5 years ago
  • Where next for left and right? (2)

    Next up is Rachel Wolf.

    “To understand the current Conservative trajectory, you have to look to before Brexit”. There was some disquiet within the Conservative Party about how Cameron and Osborne governed, and particularly that the party was over focused on the very rich and the very poor. The “Just About Managing” class comes from a Policy Exchange Report into C1 and C2 class voters in marginal seats, and the new government has them in their sites.

    And when it comes to that group, immigration is once again the dominant issue, whether they voted Remain or Leave. This group also tend to determine election outcomes, as Thatcher and Blair knew.

    When it comes to government, the balance has shifted away from the Treasury and towards No. 10. Theresa May is very much a ‘chief executive’, unlike David Cameron. This matters for universities because the Treasury was a big ally – it has a similar outlook to universities: liberal, happy to give universities cash, and pro-immigration. However, many of the new staff at No. 10 have a Home Office background.

    On universities, Wolf does not agree with Lord Kerslake, but is bemused by the sector’s lack of outright opposition to the HE Bill, whilst chasing up a blind alley on immigration. “There is zero chance” of getting students removed from net-migration. The big challenge is in the dispute over the data – how many students are actually staying in the UK after finishing their studies? How can universities prove it and present a constructive solution?



    5 years ago
  • ​Where next for the left and the right?

    Up next we have a debate with two former Spads:

    • Ayesha Hazarika, commentator, former Chief of Staff to Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP and Director of Communications for Ed Miliband MP
    • Rachel Wolf, formerly David Cameron’s Special Adviser – Education


    We start with Ayesha, who reflects on the state of the Labour Party. Latest polling on the party’s prospects puts it behind the Conservatives with every single demographic strata, and its unpopularity is bad for British politics, she argues. Brexit is sucking the air out of British politics and the business of government “has ground to a halt” and has done since the run-up to the referendum.

    Ayesha’s advice: “Don’t just assume that the government will keep universities high in their level of priorities at this time… I would like to give you the comfort that the Labour Party has a plan for an alternative higher education policy, so you will have to be your own advocates”.

    However, “the government doesn’t want you to come with a long list of moans”. Universities should make their argument forcefully, but it needs clear solutions and clear asks – how can the sector help the government solve its problems? “Help the government help itself”.

    Oakeshott asks Ayesha: “Is there any point on lobbying Labour on any of these issues?”

    Ayesha: The party is not “match-fit”, but it can matter when it comes to Parliamentary set-pieces: opposition day debates, PMQs, Bill amendments and the like.

    5 years ago
  • Lord Kerslake: the domestic agenda

    “There is no need to wait for government” on a lot of domestic policy issues. Greg Clark is a competent minister but often slow to make decisions, and the industrial strategy is taking time to develop.

    The sector is in a pretty strong place however, particularly compared to other sectors. It’s very well connected, with many allies in Parliament, particularly in the Lords. And the sector’s priorities align quite well with the governments: social mobility, growth, and productivity.

    However, there are some problems with how the sector presents itself:

    1. The sector’s priorities are far too scattergun and not focused enough. Too many things are on the list of lobbying priorities.
    2. The sector often comes across as self-interested, protective, and arrogant. Kerslake tells an anecdote of a Lords briefing by Jo Johnson on the HE Bill, where the minister was given a dressing down by some representatives of the sector. It wasn’t a good look.
    3. The sector often struggles to connect its priorities with issues that really matter to the wider public and to local regions.

    Looking at the HE Bill itself, there will be a lot to play for in the Lords. Yet influence needs to be used sparingly and in a targeted way. And universities need allies, particularly in their local communities, as influence can be far wider and deeper if universities are not just advocating on their own behalf.

    5 years ago
  • Lord Kerslake – The Future of British Politics

    Slightly later than planned, we have our opening main speaker, Lord Kerslake, Former Head of the Civil Service (and now chair of Sheffield Hallam University).

    “We are probably in the most turbulent period in British politics that I can remember… I gave up my predictive powers when Boris Johnson withdrew from the Conservative leadership race. Prediction is pretty damn hard.”

    The new government is profoundly different to the previous one. Cameron and Osborne claimed to be centrist, but were fundamentally free-market liberals. Theresa May is much more “traditionally conservative”, both in style and substance, and will be willing to intervene in the economy. She is also much more “controlling” of government policy and communications.


    “How Brexit goes will determine whether May is a caretaker Prime Minister or a long-term Prime Minister”. How is it going so far? “To be frank, they are struggling”. Kerslake argues that we have to have a sense of the direction in which the government is going, but we don’t. There is a vacuum of information about what the plan is, and this is why the scribbled notes of an aide of a backbench MP have ended up all over the front pages this morning.

    It appears that the government hasn’t yet worked through the fundamental problem: free-movement of trade vs free-movement of people. This is complicated by the new machinery of government and the minister involved: having the “three Brexiteers” all with a say will be very tricky, and it won’t have the desired goal of spreading the blame if things go wrong.

    There is also a critical shortage of resources. The civil service is now the smallest its been since the Second World War, and the challenge the government is facing is the largest it has faced since that time. It won’t be possible to do both Brexit and a domestic policy agenda without more resources.

    What does this mean for universities? Well, there’s very little upside. BUT, the sector cannot be Remoaners – the government has enough problems on its hand without universities adding a few more. The sector needs to offer constructive solutions.

    5 years ago
  • Welcome from Isabel Oakeshott

    And we’re off with Isabel Oakeshott, Political Editor At Large at the Daily Mail, who is our chair for today.

    Isabel begins by reflecting on this morning’s “have our cake and eat it” leak from outside Downing Street – “yes, they are that amateurish” she says. She also admits having voted to Leave – possibly a tough crowd then here?

    And as we begin Oakeshott reflects on how Brexit will be a challenge for universities and how much of the room will have voted to Remain. Yet there are reasons to be cheerful, she argues. Theresa May is determined, competent, and eager to get things moving. Despite all the pending legal action, the real expectation should be that Parliament will approve the notification to leave under Article 50, but there may be some bigger challenges over the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ and attempts by pro-Remain MPs to stay in the Single Market.

    And this is where the fun starts, as the debate will fundamentally be about immigration. If it came to another vote, or a general election, on which the defining issue is immigration and ‘taking back control’ of borders, it is hard to see how pro-Remain supporters can win.

    Oakeshott says she has spoken to figures in the Home Office who say there is very little hope of removing students from net-migration targets.

    “There is everything to play for… apart from on the immigration issue”.

    5 years ago
  • Good morning

    Good morning. Updates will begin at approximately 10am. There’s an excellent agenda for today’s event which can be read here.


    5 years ago