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Move over universities: the Conservative manifesto dissected

The Conservative manifesto confirms that universities do not sit easily with the Prime Minister's political outlook. We break down the documents major proposals.
This article is more than 7 years old

David Morris is the Vice Chancellor's policy adviser at the University of Greenwich and former Deputy Editor of Wonkhe. He writes in a personal capacity.

Nona worked as a Policy Assistant at Wonkhe.

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

The Conservative Party has now published its manifesto ahead of the general election. It represents a mixed bag for the higher education sector: on immigration and school sponsorship, the sector may take issue. Yet there are some more encouraging noises too, particularly in relation to industrial strategy and ambitious aims for research and development.

Perhaps what is most striking for the sector, in a document that reads more like a philosophical essay than an outline of clear, unambiguous policy proposals, is how peripheral universities are to the May agenda. Research and development aside, universities only appear in this document in relation to other spheres of policy, and not in and of themselves. What mention there is includes directions for how universities should spend their money, plans for new competitors in technical education, and what may amount to restrictions on international recruitment.

Immigration and international students

At first glance, it’s exactly what we all feared. “We will toughen the visa requirements for students, to make sure that we maintain high standards”. Whether these are standards of visa compliance or standards of quality in higher education is unclear. Suggestions that it would be the latter, as Amber Rudd’s hinted at last year, have been gradually rolled back by Jo Johnson and others. Still, it is hard to see exactly how the Home Office could make the issuing of Tier 4 visas any harder for universities and their international applicants without beginning to meddle in matters of academic quality and standards.

Meanwhile, it is confirmed that “overseas students will remain in the immigration statistics – in line with international definitions – and within scope of the government’s policy to reduce annual net migration”. This does not necessarily need to be as damaging as has been previously thought, provided that the data on international student numbers (particularly on ‘overstayers’) is improved. The Home Office is reportedly sitting on new figures showing that the numbers of student ‘overstayers’ – effectively students’ contribution to net migration figures – are significantly lower than is currently understood. If official migration statistics were to corrected – they are currently under review by the ONS – then including students within the net migration figure might be less damaging than it has been in the past.

However, the lines could also be read to mean that the government intends to reduce international students in order to reduce annual net migration. This would directly contradict Viscount Younger’s recent assurances to Parliament that “we have no plans to cap the number of genuine students who can come to the UK”.

And if all that wasn’t bad enough, we read that “will increase the Immigration Health Surcharge, to £600 for migrant workers and £450 for international students, to cover their use of the NHS”. Thankfully, it appears that PhD level workers will remain exempt from the Immigration Skills Charge, which will be doubled to £2000 per migrant worker.

Technical education

The extensive section of the manifesto covering technical education can be read as a direct challenge to universities. Most ominous (at least from universities’ point of view) is the following:

“To ensure that further, technical and higher education institutions are treated fairly, we will also launch a major review of funding across tertiary education as a whole, looking at how we can ensure that students get access to financial support that offers value for money, is available across different routes and encourages the development of the skills we need as a country”

This could be well influenced by a recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report which showed how universities have seen significantly more generous increases in their funding compared to the rest of the tertiary sector. The implication – articulated elsewhere in Conservative circles – is clear: that universities have been too generously funded in comparison to other tertiary education options. The promised review could be a big moment for the whole tertiary education landscape: watch this space.

We now have a slightly clearer picture on what the new Institutes of Technology might involve. The IoT’s will be “given the freedoms that make our universities great”, we are told. The IoTs will be established “in every major city in England”. It appears that they will be outright competitors to universities, particularly post-92 institutions: “providing courses at degree level and above, specialising in technical disciplines, such as STEM, whilst also providing higher-level apprenticeships and bespoke courses for employers”.

The IoTs will “be able to gain royal charter status and regius professorships in technical education” and “eligibility for public funding for productivity and skills research, and access to loans and grants for their students”.

“Above all”, we are told, “they will become anchor institutions for local, regional and national industry, providing sought-after skills to support the economy, and developing their own local identity to make sure they can meet the skills needs of local employers”. The implication here is that universities have failed to do this.

Finally, there is the regularly touted plan for a “UCAS-style” application system for technical education. Such plans have been mooted for many years by politicians in technical education policy circles, and often have invited cynicism when they haven’t come to anything. But such is the focus on reforming technical education in this manifesto, we suspect they might actually be serious this time.

Industrial Strategy

Industrial strategy features prominently in the manifesto, and the Tories’ ambitious plans for investment in research and development will be warmly welcomed by the research and science community. Most positively, and in stark contrast to the party’s general line on immigration and international students, the Conservatives say that they will “enable leading scientists from around the world to work here”. Though the Immigration Skills Charge levied on employers taking on migrant workers will be doubled, to £2000 per migrant employee, there is no indication that the exemption for PhD-level workers and above will be removed.  

The Tories stated aims is for Britain to be the “most innovative country in the world”, with a commitment to meet the OECD average for investment in research & development – 2.4% – within 10 years, and setting a longer term goal of 3%. Reaching the 2.4% target would double current national spend on R&D, and will no doubt be welcomed by the research community. The manifesto also sets a goal to ensure that we have a “regulatory environment encouraging innovation” post-Brexit.

The document clearly places the onus on universities to drive up investment in R&D, stating that a Conservative government would support universities to lead on the expansion of larger investment funds.


The manifesto confirms that it will be compulsory for universities charging the maximum tuition fee to sponsor academies or support free schools. It also stresses the important civic role that universities should play in making a contribution to the local community and economy.

The manifesto also pledges to build at least one hundred new free schools a year and establish a specialist maths school in every major city in England, as well as lifting the ban on the establishment of selective schools. The schools budget will increase by £4 billion by 2022, reflecting a tactical approach to stave off current criticisms of a funding crisis in schools.

In a nod to the crisis in teacher recruitment, student loan repayments for teachers are to be forgiven during their time in the profession. This is quite a nice tax cut, but whether it will be enough to fix the growing crisis in teacher recruitment remains to be seen.


A curious section on moving parts of the civil service to locations across the UK away from London and the South East includes a curious line: “in a way that encourages the development of new clusters of public services, private businesses and, where appropriate, universities”. Elsewhere, a United Kingdom Shared Prosperity Fund will be set up – presumably a direct replacement for the European regional development funds from which several universities have benefitted.

Brexit, and other bits and pieces

While there is a lack of explicit acknowledgement of the impact that Brexit may have on the higher education sector, the manifesto contains a nod to continued collaboration in science and innovation, and an open commitment to ongoing participating in specific European programmes, such as Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+.

It also mentions supporting research into cancer research and continuing to fund schemes that get graduates from leading universities to serve in the public sector – as well as opening such schemes up to older professionals who may want a career change.

One response to “Move over universities: the Conservative manifesto dissected

  1. many thanks for this helpful review. A few quick reactions: (1) their apparent belief that UK universities are overfunded is mad. (2) do the Conservatives seriously think that putting Uni’s into competition with both low-end for-profits and a brand new (underfunded) network of Institutes of Technology will turn the UK into Germany? “Germany” is a deep socio-cultural and intellectual structure, not just a set of 67 Fraunhofer institutes (3) there’s no post-Brexit global strategic thinking going on in this STEM fetishizing. There is already a Germany, and differently, a France, an Italy, a Sweden, a US, a China, a Poland, a Taiwan, an India, a South Korea, etc and just pursuing the idea of being “most innovative” is meaningless. (4) Lasting innovation comes from the garages and the grassroots, and would be better supported by a holistic approach to improving all education via something like Labour’s National Education Service than by a top-down party with deep ties to elite incumbents. (5) when in this democratic country did everyone vote that all children must become technologists or face high debt, low salaries, and third-tier social status? It’s an inefficient use of national talent and also unethical to keep pushing a whole population towards technology. (6) the future of innovation is STEM plus SASH (arts, humanities, social sciences) as being developed in places like Singapore and Scandinavia; in contrast, the IoTs have a belated 1990s catch-up “new economy” feel. (7) universities are the places that already do these arts-sciences-society combinations and should actively position themselves at the heart of multi-dimensional economic development and of the personal and cultural development that societies equally need. I’m still liking Labour’s manifesto better . . .

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