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


  • 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…


    1 year 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.

    1 year 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…


    1 year 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.

    1 year 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?



    1 year 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.

    1 year 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.

    1 year 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.

    1 year 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”.

    1 year 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.


    1 year ago