If Britain’s ‘Super Thursday’ lacked some of the glamour of its US equivalent, some of the campaigning in the run up began to match American levels of controversy, especially in London. With the results now finalised we are beginning to get an idea of the new political shape of the UK and the implications for universities.
The Welsh Assembly election has perhaps produced the most interesting outcomes for higher education. Labour did better than expected in managing to lose only one seat, whilst Plaid Cymru and UKIP made gains. A Labour-Plaid coalition, reminiscent of the 2007-11 government, is now looking less likely than before election night. Labour will likely govern as a minority, and make overtures to the small number of Liberal Democrats or even some independently minded Plaid members if the numbers add up. Former education minister Leighton Andrews suffered a high profile defeat to Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood in Rhondda.
Welsh Labour’s manifesto was light on policy promises in HE, preferring to await the outcomes of the Diamond Review in the autumn. Labour’s one concrete promise is to create a single funding council for higher and further education, as well as pledging a ‘better package’ of student support than in England.
In contrast, Plaid Cymru’s manifesto contained a wide array of wonky HE policy ideas. Most attention has been directed to Plaid’s promise to write-off up to £18,000 of Welsh domiciled graduates tuition fees if they return to or remain in Wales. Plaid’s manifesto also promises a ‘National Academy of Government’, based within an existing university, to focus on research and postgraduate provision for “the governance challenges of small nations and city-regions”. They also want to ‘plug the gap’ between HEFCW funding and English university funding, in return for a firmer commitment from Welsh institutions to “reflect the needs of Wales” in their research and teaching priorities. Other initiatives mooted by Plaid include new ‘National Colleges of Vocational Education’ and a ‘Higher Education Innovation Fund’.
It now looks like everything will hang upon the outcomes of the Diamond Review in the autumn. The Welsh HE budget has come under significant pressure in recent years, and a £41 million cut to HEFCW was only avoided in the most recent budget after lobbying from the sector and NUS Wales. The thorny issue of Welsh Government subsidies for Welsh students in English universities has not yet been resolved. It remains to be seen if Plaid can get their HE ideas on the table and reconcile them with the outcomes of Diamond.
The SNP juggernaut appears to have been slowed, and the nationalists did not quite get a majority as expected. Nonetheless, the SNP will certainly form a government, and much of their programme will be supported by the Scottish Greens. There will be relative stability but also uncertainty for the Scottish HE sector. Free tuition is a flagship policy for the SNP, around which it has positioned itself as an ‘anti-austerity party’. It is now quite literally set in stone, and very hard to see the party ever abandoning it.
The SNP manifesto promised the continuation of maintenance grants and NHS bursaries, as well as free college places for adult learners; all cut in England. The current Scottish Government has been eager to rebut criticisms that free tuition has not led to real progress on widening access, which will no doubt be sparked up if the Conservatives overtake Labour to become the main opposition and use HE participation as a wedge issue to challenge the SNP.
We expect to see a full implementation of the recommendations of the Commission on Widening Access. This included the creation of a Commissioner for Fair Access and a new Framework for Fair Access, as well as forcing universities to adopt new “access thresholds” – effectively lower entry standards – for learners from the most deprived backgrounds. The framework also includes a particular focus on measures to support students from care backgrounds, including replacing maintenance loans with bursaries.
After the dust settles, it will be interesting to see how budgetary pressures caused by the record-low oil price impact HE, especially if the pressure builds up over free tuition.
Polls suggested that the DUP would lose a little ground to their unionist rivals: the UUP and Traditional Unionist Voice, but in the end the Assembly has turned out much the same. Instead, it was the nationalist vote that splintered, with Sinn Fein and the SDLP losing votes and seats to the Greens and the People before Profit Alliance.
Nonetheless, the executive looks to remain much the same with the DUP and Sinn Fein at the helm, and the DUP the only party to surpass the critical 30 seats mark that effectively gives the party a legislative veto. Manifestos on both unionist and nationalist sides were light on HE policy, though several of the major parties have promised ‘reduce the burden of student debt’ by various and largely non-specific means.
The lack of attention given to HE might be concerning for a sector that has been under substantial funding pressure for the last few years. A combination of lower fees and grant cuts meant that £1000-£2000 less was spent per student last year compared with universities in England, and there is some pressure to reconsider government subsidies for Northern Irish students in other UK nations.
Whilst the Mayor of London has no direct responsible for matters of higher education, the mayoral election still might have implications for the capital’s many universities. London’s institutions are performing poorly on student experience surveys and the NSS. Whilst the prestige of the capital city is clearly appealing for prospective students, many are left disappointed by the cost of housing and transport. The next mayor will have substantial power over these policy areas and so could impact the student experience in London.
Unsurprisingly, Sadiq Khan won the mayoralty convincingly. His plans to freeze fares for four years will be welcomed by cash strapped students.
Universities planning ambitious capital investments will look to see if Khan can follow through on his proposals to ease the upward trajectory of property prices, including a clamp down on ‘land-banking’. Khan has also promised action to improve renting standards by promoting landlord licensing schemes and a city-wide not-for-profit letting agent.
The newly elected mayor will also chair the oversight group for London’s area reviews of post-16 education. It will be interesting to see if these take a different direction to other area reviews with the more established and visibly political control of devolved administration in the capital. This might mean that FE colleges are directed to work more closely with universities to deliver higher vocational skills.