Alistair Jarvis is Pro Vice Chancellor (Partnerships and Governance) at the University of London.

The last decade of higher education, though a short timespan in the full history of the sector, has been a turbulent one.

We’ve seen major challenges for universities including Brexit, a global pandemic, the birth of a new regulator of universities in England, many changes of government ministers, the politically polarising culture wars, battles over immigration policy – to name just a few. In that time, though higher education has remained, in essence, the same in terms of mission and purpose, the policy settlement underpinning higher education’s core activities has changed significantly – particularly in England.

As a member of the senior team at Universities UK since 2013 (and chief executive from 2017-22) I’ve been fortunate enough to have a front row seat to how political events have shaped the sector. Despite political turmoil, universities have successfully managed to navigate a way through the major policy developments of the past decade – a combination of influencing where they can, innovating, growing, and adapting to challenges.

Now, as universities look ahead to the prospect of a general election next year, with probably (but not certainly) a change in government, the big challenges are mounting up – for universities and for government – and there is no clear sign that government of any colour is going to solve them.

Universities need to influence the policy debate in the years ahead, be politically savvy in doing this and be prepared to continue to adapt to seize opportunities and navigate challenges. Working to preserve the status quo won’t work – they’ll need to innovate, change, and come up with new ideas to meet the financial, political, international, and educational challenges ahead.

Politics shapes policy

The sad reality is that many policy interventions are influenced more by the political context than by evidence.

In this period 2013-23 we’ve had:

  • Three general elections: May 2015, June 2017, and December 2019
  • A coalition government (2010-2015); a Conservative government with a slim majority (May 2015 to June 2016); a Conservative minority government (June 2016 to December 2019); and a Conservative majority government since December 2019
  • Five Prime Ministers: David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and Rishi Sunak
  • The Brexit referendum in 2016 – won by Leave with 51.2 per cent of the vote
  • The Covid-19 pandemic (2020-23)
  • Ten education secretaries in the period 2013 to 2023 – Michael Gove (albeit universities fell under the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Business, Vince Cable), Nicky Morgan, Justine Greening, Damian Hinds, Gavin Williamson, Nadhim Zahawi, Michelle Donelan, James Cleverly, Kit Malthouse, Gillian Keegan. The final five of which all served (at least part of their term) during 2022!
  • Eight different ministers with responsibility for universities – with two of them serving twice – David Willetts, Greg Clark, Jo Johnson, Sam Gyimah, Chris Skidmore, Jo Johnson, Chris Skidmore, Michelle Donelan, Andrea Jenkyns, Robert Halfon.

It’s notable that for the majority of years during the last decade, the governing party has not held a significant parliamentary majority. For much of this time, the government has had little confidence in keeping enough MPs on side to get legislation through parliament to deliver its policy agenda.

The regular changes in Prime Ministers have meant few instances of truly long-term policy thinking. The changes in PM, the General Elections, the Brexit referendum have meant many reshuffles and regular ministerial change.

Politics and universities become intertwined

Universities have long been places of political debate, of diverse views and of new (sometimes radical) ideas, but a distinguishing feature of this era is that the politicisation of universities increased. Arguably, the attacks on universities we have seen during this period are a signal of national structural political weakness, as culture wars and populism overtook considered and evidenced debate.

Boris Johnson emerged as the lead protagonist in a more populist political agenda, placing short-term political gain and popularity over longer term policy or consistent political direction. Part of this has been an attack on institutions: the BBC, the National Trust, major charities, the British Council, and local government.

There are many in parliament and in the media who see political advantage in fuelling the culture wars, with some of the more prominent culture warriors in government viewing universities – firmly categorised as “elite institutions” – as being on the wrong side of this debate. Political attacks on universities have included accusations of “wokeness”, accusations of restricting freedom of speech, and doing too little to protect academic freedom.

From the political right, universities have been attacked for being monocultural, promoting left-leaning thinking, and being fanatically pro-EU, and internationalist to the detriment of local or national needs. It’s said that universities put too great an emphasis on social issues and political correctness, and too little focus on economic needs.

From the left, universities have been accused of being too preoccupied with income generation, too much like corporate businesses, providing worsening working conditions for their staff, too supportive of the tuition fees regime, too focused on individual benefit and economic matters rather than societal needs, and too accommodating to the wishes of Conservative governments.

The media makes hay from all this critique. Barely a week passes without media headlines featuring universities whether it be about graduate employment, freedom of speech, student mental health, senior staff pay, teaching quality, “woke academics”, industrial relations tensions, admissions issues, or student complaints.

There is also political frustration that the Westminster government has limited power over universities. The autonomy universities enjoy – both enshrined in law and through the fact that most income is generated via tuition fees – means government does not have such powerful policy and financial levers to direct universities in the way they can with schools, colleges, hospitals, the police, and local authorities.

Public criticism of universities in general or individual university decisions are often on issues where politicians have no regulatory teeth – it is a sign of weakness, not strength.

Yet while much of the media and political attack on universities is poorly informed and lacking in nuance, it also often includes elements of fair criticism. Public, media and political perceptions matter in terms of government policy priorities, even on issues where the evidence is lacking. Therefore, public and political perceptions should matter to universities.

It is not surprising or unreasonable in an era of around 50 per cent participation in higher education that universities are under intense scrutiny from the media, regulators, and politicians. Universities are large, prominent, and (relatively) wealthy – de facto newsworthy institutions. They are major employers and influential players in communities. Therefore, they should expect challenge and public scrutiny of practices, policies, and processes.

As major institutions of public interest, with significant support from public funding – student loans, research funding – it is also legitimate for politicians to raise concerns with universities. As a university sector, we need to understand these concerns and address them. Political and media perceptions have an impact on future policy, funding, regulation and the overall reputation of universities.

University governance, decision-making, student-related policies, course content, quality, value-for-money and senior staff pay are just some of the issues where university leadership should be able to explain or justify decisions – and demonstrate robust processes. In some cases this may mean being assertive in defence of the sector’s values – but in others it will mean paying much closer attention to the public’s views on issues and considering how to build coalitions of support for the things universities want to do, both locally and nationally.

Universities have also (rightly) been challenged by the rise of social movements such as the Black Lives Matter campaign, the Me Too campaign on sexual harassment and misconduct, and by environmental causes. With strong student support a powerful light has been shone on ingrained issues where universities need to improve.

On the one hand, many parliamentarians and policymakers do recognise that universities are a major asset delivering huge, positive impact to individuals, communities and the economy.

But on the other, politicians have been struggling to build sustainable coalitions even within their own parties, at a time of considerable economic turmoil. This political environment has an impact on politicians’ behaviours, on the media, and on policy. There is temptation to do or to say something which is high profile and popular, rather than the right long-term policy choice. Policy priorities are often shaped to grab headlines and short-term political gain.

From politics to policy

A clear consequence of political instability is that the political foundations for major policy reforms look very shaky. Major policy moves which are radical, controversial, or contested are politically difficult to get through parliament.

The lack of longer-term policy direction, thinking or stable political leadership means there is a high risk that new policies will have little clear direction, lack clarity of objectives and ultimately fail to deliver significant improvements or positive change. The political focus is more often on the policy announcement than the difficult and time-consuming detail of the delivery.

However, despite the political uncertainty, there have been three groups of issues of primary political and policy focus on over the last decade: economic growth and skills; quality and value for money; immigration and international students.

The Conservative-led governments of the past decade have all seen universities’ primary role as an economic one – to develop the skills that business and the public sector need, to give people skills so they can find jobs, to support business to innovate and grow, to boost productivity and support local economies. They have increased investment in research and innovation. They have developed policies to encourage universities to maximise their economic impact. Examples include the importance of measuring impact as part of the research assessment framework, driving a growth in degree apprenticeships, introducing the knowledge exchange framework, and the developing lifelong loan entitlement.

Since tuition fees in England rose to £9,000 in 2012, the prevailing political view has been that universities are well-funded and have escaped the austerity imposed on many publicly funded sectors. This leads to accusations that universities are inefficient and offer poor value for the taxpayer. The tuition fee regime in England and Wales has also ensured a (valid) political focus on value for money, the quality of education and the wider student experience. The regulatory regime introduced by the Office for Students (OfS) has a focus on value and quality as major pillars.

Employability of graduates and the quality of a university course are inherently linked in the eyes of the government. In recent years, successive ministers have been concerned that a significant proportion – too much in their eyes – of higher education provision is not focused enough on developing skills, therefore not good for employability, therefore of low quality.

Thirdly, immigration policy has remained a prominent focus of government throughout the last decade. Whilst in more recent years the government has supported the growth of international student numbers – primarily for economic reasons – and has (since 2019) made improvements to immigration policy for international students, through the introduction of better post-study work visas backed by the International Education Strategy, this welcome support followed many years of hostility and battles between universities and government over international students. Theresa May (as Home Secretary from 2010 to 2016, then as PM from 2016 to 2019) was a powerful force and voice in creating a difficult immigration regime for international students coupled with an unwelcoming narrative from government – and current Home Secretary Suella Braverman has continued and amplified this way of thinking. Access to the UK higher education for EU students has also worsened post-Brexit.

Changing the policy architecture

Looking back on this period it’s clear that Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic will stand out as events that shaped this historical moment. But during this time, the political and policy settlement for universities in England also changed a great deal. The four policy interventions I have chosen, taken together, represent a real and sustained shift in policy – that, crucially, would be difficult to roll back, even if the political appetite was there to do so.

Ending student number controls in England

Announced in December 2013, and implemented for the 2015-16 academic year, the lifting of student number controls in England has arguably shaped the modern higher education sector in England more than any other policy. A surprise announcement by then Chancellor George Osborne, it liberalised the supply of higher education places to meet the increasing demand.

The intention was to provide higher level educational opportunities to a greater number of people, meet and raise aspirations and drive economic growth and international competitiveness by developing a workforce with a higher proportion of higher-level skills. The increased market competition was also viewed as a way to drive up quality and value of the provision as universities battled to attract and retain students.

The Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) 2017

HERA was the most significant piece of legislation for universities since 1992, and laid the foundations for a new regulatory regime in England and to some extent the rest of the UK. HERA and the political commentary associated with its introduction included a focus on quality of provision, on value for money, and graduate outcomes. Widening and growing access to higher education was a central theme, including encouraging the creation of new universities – “challenger institutions” – to support this expansion and drive-up quality through competition.

The 2017 Act put in place the legislation to replace the previous Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) with the Office for Students. Central to the regulatory regime were conditions of registration for higher education providers in seven core areas: access and participation for students from all backgrounds; quality, reliable standards and positive outcomes for all students; protecting the interests of all students; financial sustainability; good governance; information for students; and accountability for fees and funding.

OfS was established with new powers to fine, deregister, or censure higher education providers that breach conditions of registration. The intention was to put students’ interests first.

HERA also established UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which created an umbrella strategic body which combined the work of the UK-wide research councils, Innovate UK and the former research and knowledge transfer responsibilities of HEFCE, including taking on administration of English quality-related funding.

The new single body for research and innovation overnight became an influential public body with a large budget. The intention was to bring a more strategic focus to (increasing) government investment in research and innovation, drive inter- and multidisciplinary research, and leverage greater private sector investment in R&D. A welcome growth in public funding for research funding accompanied this development.

Improvements to post-study work visas

Following a long battle between universities and government on the matter of international student numbers, in September 2019, there was a major, positive shift in immigration policy which made the UK a more attractive place for international students.

The lack of post-study work visas had long put the UK at a significant competitive disadvantage in recruiting international students. The introduction of post-study work visas from 2020-21 for students graduating from UK universities allowed international students to work in the UK for two years after their study. We have since seen a significant increase in international students choosing to study in the UK, with a particularly large growth of students from India.

Augar and everything after… the Lifelong Loan Entitlement

In February 2018 the government commissioned an independent panel, chaired by Philip Augar, to review post-18 education and funding. In May 2019 the panel published its report and recommendations. These included proposals to strengthen technical and vocational education; increase educational opportunities particularly to boost the number of people studying at level 3, 4, and 5 (post GCSE but pre full degree); and reforming funding for FE colleges.

For universities the three key recommendations were proposals to “bear down on lower value degrees,” find efficiencies to reduce tuition fees to £7,500 a year with grants to support high-cost subjects, and the introduction of a lifelong learning loan allowance to be used at higher technical and degree level at any stage of an adult’s career for full and part-time students.

Ministers have been very slow to implement or even respond fully to a number of Augar recommendations, with many resulting consultations and still some issues unresolved. However, the review has led to a flagship policy, the development of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) to support high-level technical skills and better support lifelong learning.

The intention is to introduce the LLE from 2025. It will provide individuals with a loan entitlement equivalent to four years of post-18 education which can be used over their lifetime. This can be used flexibly for full-time or part-time study of modules or full qualifications at levels 4 to 6 in colleges or universities. It is intended to ultimately replace the current system of Government-backed student finance loan.

Although the policy interventions and political rhetoric promoted choice, quality, competitiveness, and student experience the one thing that didn’t happen was long term investment in the sector’s capacity. Despite some challenges, most universities were able to more-or-less manage this in a period of low inflation and modest demographic growth but a structural problem was beginning to build up.

What can be learned from the last 10 years

The shape and size of the university sector has changed significantly. The abolition of student number controls has led to a significant fluctuation in student numbers across the sector – with winners and losers – both in terms of institutions, but also in terms of changes in subject choices by applicants. Despite the political aspirations of HERA, we have not seen an influx of successful new higher education providers. Indeed, we have seen significant growth of many traditional universities. Established providers have competed successfully in the market. Universities have innovated and adapted their offer to attract greater numbers of commuter students, degree apprentices and new programmes that meet aspirations and growing sectors of the economy. A university degree is the preferred entry route to many key public sector professions.

Demand for a university education remains very strong. Applications to UK universities have risen very significantly over the decade and remain high – both in absolute terms and as a proportion of school leavers, albeit we have sadly seen a fall in adult learners. UCAS projects that applications to university will rise very significantly over the years ahead. A political focus on apprenticeships and further education hasn’t dampened demand for HE. Neither political attacks on low value courses nor vocal concerns about quality have led to a fall in demand for higher education. Demand has grown from international students to study for a UK university degree – both in the UK and through transnational education.

The university sector is resilient and adaptable. Most universities have weathered the storms of a global pandemic and navigated the uncertainties of Brexit. The unpredictable trajectory of the pandemic caused multiple challenges for university leaders, staff and students. Universities grappled with how to offer high-quality learning under severe restrictions; how to move learning rapidly online; how to operationalise physical distancing on campuses; how to best support student and staff wellbeing; managed the roll-out of mass testing and outbreaks when they occurred. Universities coped with many changes of government guidance and regular policy interventions. Up and down the country, stories emerged of universities, their staff and students offering their expertise, their time and their resources to support the national effort and their communities.

However, resilience, adaptability and strong demand have not provided universities with immunity from a number of strategic challenges that are growing in severity.

The challenges ahead

I think that there are three primary strategic challenges for the sector and policy makers for the years ahead: how universities will manage financial pressures, how universities can expand at scale while maintaining quality of provision, and how universities can manage international risks.

And, as I will explain, wider national economic and social pressures mean that universities should not place their hopes in a government of any flavour to mount a heroic rescue. Expectations of the sector from the public and politicians will remain high, and resources scarce. So it will be up to universities to continue to find ways to shape and influence public views and work with politicians to develop solutions.

Financial pressures

Financial pressures are growing and many institutions are managing financial challenges. The period of rapidly rising inflation is now biting hard, yet by 2024 home tuition fees will have been capped for 10 of the past 11 years. As costs rise – wages, estates development, energy bills, maintenance – universities are increasingly having to do more with less. Lack of full economic costs for research funding creates further financial burden. The increasing need for universities to support student hardship and provide an increasing range of services – although the right thing to do – exacerbates financial pressures.

Difficult financial decisions are having to be made, efficiencies are required, while investment is needed to secure opportunities. The funding pressures on universities – with a long-term freeze on fees and rising inflation – mean that significant pay increases or pension contribution increases are deemed unaffordable for many universities.

Universities have seen regular industrial action in recent years as pensions benefits have been cut and pay has failed to keep up with inflation. Yet staff are by far universities’ most important asset. Competitive wages are needed to recruit and retain those with the skills to conduct brilliant research, to teach students, and to run effective professional services. Labour market shortages mean increasing pressures to recruit to some roles.

I worry about the lack of “good” solutions to the financial pressures facing universities. A tuition fee rise looks politically very unlikely. Even with political will from government, the lack of public support would make it difficult to receive majority parliamentary support. There is little political or public appetite for more public funding for higher education.

There remain some opportunities for growth – strong international demand for UK degrees, growth in some international markets; positive demographic shifts as the number of 18-year-olds in the domestic population increases; and new funding models being developed for more flexible provision – modules, part-time, short courses. However even these growth opportunities require investment.

Universities also face international pressures with investment necessary on infrastructure, needed to attract and retain the best staff globally, important to deliver a learning experience that meet student expectations, and ultimately necessary to maintain quality of provision.

Quality and value for money

Debates over quality will not go away – indeed, I expect they will become more acute in the months and years ahead.

There are two very significant pressures that will create huge challenges for universities in maintaining (let alone enhancing) the quality of the educational experience that they offer students – the real-terms financial squeeze and the growth in demand for higher education places.

UCAS projects that by 2030 there could be up to 30 per cent more HE applicants. Either this means fierce competition for places, with many applicants missing out, or it requires a huge growth of supply either by significant expansion of current higher education institutions or by opening new universities. Even with some expansion of distance digital learning and apprenticeships, demand will increasingly outstrip supply.

The current financial position of most universities does not support expansion and maintaining quality. Few university leaders are currently planning to vastly grow their intakes, build new campuses, or significantly expand their faculties. Investment in staff, teaching spaces, accommodation, support services, equipment, libraries and more is needed. Without policy intervention to address the inflationary pressures, universities simply can’t afford to expand provision for UK students at the current unit of resource without risking the quality of the student experience.

Any lower cost expansion, at scale, is most likely to be at the lower quality end of the market – where expansion can perhaps be achieved without such significant investment in space, facilities, support services and staff.

In a period of demographic growth, with a fixed unit of resource something has to give if we are to see expansion. I fear this will be the quality of education and student experience.

There are some universities – particularly the more selective – that could increase their intake of international students to meet demand. The higher international student fees make this an affordable option but I’m not sure if this meets a public (or political) opinion test. Universities significantly growing international student numbers whilst restricting their domestic intake in a period of demographic growth would not be popular or seem fair.

We know that admissions issues and fair access to higher education are always of political, public and media interest, from A level results day front page stories to political questions about how many people should be going to university, to interest in student’s subject choices, to access for disadvantaged groups, to fairness in the admissions system. It is likely that these issues will be ever more prominent in the years ahead as demand for higher education increasingly outstrips the supply of places.

Managing the growing international risks

Over the past decade UK universities have continued to grow the scale and scope of their international activities and seek to remain study destinations of choice.

We have seen very strong demand for UK higher education – both students coming to study in the UK and for transnational education offered by UK universities overseas. There is fierce competition for international students.

Brexit and the pandemic have created strategic risks. Tensions with China cause further challenges.

Brexit created a myriad of challenges and uncertainties for universities. Indeed, at one point in the months after the vote, I had a list of over 100 Brexit-related questions on which universities needed clarity.

In December 2020, the UK agreed a partnership deal with the EU which was a mixed bag – with the UK sadly leaving Erasmus but with a positive commitment to continued participation in Horizon Europe as an associate country. However, there has been limited progress on the UK’s association to Horizon Europe.

There is much that could be said about the geo-political risks. The appalling decision of the Russian government to invade Ukraine has been condemned by the university sector along with international partners.

The UK’s political relationship with China remains strained and fragile – challenged further still by security incidents, at times featuring UK universities – whereas our economic relationship with China is increasingly important.

This is particularly stark in terms of UK universities success in attracting Chinese students which leaves us financially exposed if there were to be a fall in numbers. The risk of course is that China could feasibly choose to reduce the flow of outgoing students to another country if it so chose. Universities should be nervously watching the UK-China relationship and consider whether putting effort into growing international student numbers from other countries may be a wise choice.

Politics in the short and long term

The likelihood is that we will see a general election in autumn of 2024. Universities need to prepare for a possible change of government without making the mistake of alienating the current one or forgetting that there is still eighteen months of parliamentary time to go.

Opinion polls currently show a large Labour lead and, despite some progress by Rishi Sunak to steady the ship, the popularity of the Conservative Party remains low. This, coupled with the current turmoil in the SNP, mean a Labour majority government in Westminster is looking likely.

The Sunak government is now in a hurry to drive change having delivered little progress in this parliament on levelling up, social care reform, Global Britain, meeting skills needs, more nurses and police – in fact most of the Conservative manifesto promises have not yet been delivered.

The fiscal challenges which the UK (and most advanced economies) face post-Covid remain very significant. The outbreak of Covid and the economic lockdowns that followed meant that UK GDP was almost 10 per cent lower in 2020 than in 2019. This is an unprecedented shock in peacetime in any country – probably the biggest year-on-year decline in economic activity in over 300 years since the Great Frost of 1709. The massive decline in economic activity has led to government borrowing hitting a peacetime high in 2021 (the highest deficit since World War 2), breaking a record previously set during the financial crisis.

The speed of economic recovery is central to people’s everyday lives, to prosperity (or lack of it), to meeting the cost-of-living challenges and to Conservative electoral prospects. The Sunak government’s priorities are likely to continue to be a focus on economic growth and economic recovery from the pandemic – and aiming to recover a reputation for economic competence – but with limited new public investment given the fiscal constraints.

We will hear a lot about boosting productivity, new trade deals, investment in skills and innovation, tackling inflation, sensible public spending for investment, and controlling public debt.

With an election likely in 2024 we will hear a rhetorical focus on popular causes – supporting the NHS, investing in social care, improving skills and productivity, on levelling up, and on making the most of Brexit opportunities. On the NHS and social care there will be a narrative of investment in these as priorities despite fiscal squeeze.

The Conservative government sees immigration as a wedge issue, crucial to its electoral hopes, guaranteed to enthuse its base. The recent “Stop the Boats” narrative is part of this – and we’ll see more ahead of the election.

The tone will remain tough on immigration, and there may be some high-profile new intervention, albeit I’m not yet convinced that this will lead to major policy changes that will impact the majority of international students. Although rhetoric that makes the UK sound like an unwelcome place might be what does the damage rather than a radical policy shift.

On foreign affairs, the government wants to project a confident UK, as a globally networked independent trading nation, committed to projecting its power diplomatically, economically and with strong defence. Increasing investment in defence, coupled with muscular position aims to show that the UK has the ability to exert influence and keep people safe in an uncertain world.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to dominate foreign affairs, with the UK government seeking to play a prominent role through defence aid and economic sanctions. An increasingly hawkish position on China, with a concern about Chinese influence on universities – and the security risks – is one to watch in the months ahead.

Universities are not a priority for the Sunak government, unlikely to be the focus of new financial support or swathes of new policy announcements – but neither are they particularly hostile to universities.

This government will continue to see universities’ primary role as an economic one. The cost-of-living crisis will further strengthen this belief. The government wants to grow the economy, improve productivity and fund education that helps people get good jobs. Maximising the number of people in work – and earning – is a central plank to the government’s economic approach.

Ministers expect universities to focus on the skills that the economy and our public services need. In turn, in their eyes, if universities are getting it right, they expect graduates to gain skills which will make them employable, and get good jobs. This is the Conservatives’ clear ideological view but they also know that a focus on skills and jobs polls well.

We will continue to see a strong regulatory focus on employability – with an expectation that courses are delivering outcomes of most graduates getting graduate jobs. This is what the new B3 metrics are about and we should expect to continue to see a tough stance from OfS on this.

Employability is also central to the government’s approach to social mobility, access and participation in higher education.

We will see the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) continue to develop, albeit slowly and in a limited form. The LLE is a good initiative to support lifelong learning through flexible access to finance. One of the key policy failures of the last decade is the decline in numbers of adult learners and a lack of support for lifelong learning.

However, is hard to match the current commitment – a launch in 2025 of flexible loans worth up to £37,000 for up to four years study for Higher Technical Qualifications and some technical level 4 and 5 qualifications – with one government minister’s rhetoric that the LLE is “…like the foundation of the NHS for skills.”

The government is likely to stick to its commitment on investment in research and innovation up to the General Election. However, beyond this, there is unlikely to be any further significant new funding for universities, and a possibility of some trimming if the opportunity arises.

We can expect universities to continue to be caught up in culture wars but, aside from the Free Speech Bill, it is unlikely we will see significant new policy developed.

More positively, the Prime Minister, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and education secretary Gillian Keegan are not particularly keen on culture wars – not true believers – albeit may see the advantage of occasional interventions to rally a certain part of the Conservatives’ supporter base and parliamentary party.

Post general election – a Labour government?

What is perhaps most obvious about Labour currently is that the party doesn’t yet have a lot of firmed up, clear policy positions or proposals. They are still mostly at either the stage of vague, high-level commentary or criticisms of the Conservative policy.

Labour has some big policy questions to answer in regard to higher education:

  1. What will Labour’s higher education funding policy be?
  2. What will Labour do with the planned Lifelong Loan Entitlement?
  3. Will Labour change immigration policy in relation to international students?

Labour went into the last general election with a pledge to abolish tuition fees and instead fund universities by raising tax on higher earners – a pledge from which opposition leader Keir Starmer has distanced himself in expectation of a new Labour HE funding policy.

It is likely that Labour will want to create some distinction between the new policy and the current Conservative student finance policy, with a likely pledge to make the system fairer. More generous student maintenance support is an option. A greater focus on under-represented groups is likely.

Keir Starmer has made clear that Labour is not going to go into the next election with a clear commitment to abolish tuition fees. A fiscally cautious Labour Party, with other spending priorities, will not invest £11bn+/year in universities from general taxation to make up the shortfall from lost tuition fee income. A commitment to “develop a fairer funding policy for HE in England” remains a likely option. This effectively kicks the can down the road for a few years, leaving room for a review in the next parliament. Some have suggested we might see a move towards a graduate tax – but funding change may not be that radical – and the challenge of funding expansion to meet demand will remain.

Labour also needs to decide what to do with the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. It is a flagship Conservative policy, but one whose aspirations to enhance lifelong learning opportunities, increase access to learning at higher levels, fund courses that lead to employability, meet the skills needs of employers, and boost productivity Labour would also support. Options are to ditch the LLE and replace it with a Labour alternative, allow it to continue along its current (prospectively rather modest) track, or to supercharge it with more investment and more ambition.

A Labour government will likely want to send a more welcoming message to international students, recognising their value to the UK. We could see a positive change in narrative and possibly attempts at greater separation of international students from immigration figures.

However, on immigration policy, the Labour leadership will not want to fight a general election with pledges which suggest they are weak on immigration. A more liberal immigration policy will make it harder to win many of the winnable seats they need for a majority. The current Labour leadership has taken a relatively tough stance on immigration so there’s no guarantee that we’ll see a significant policy change for international students or staff.

Despite all this, my big prediction is that many of the biggest issues and policy debates for universities will remain prominent, whichever party is in power.

Debates over funding won’t go away. Inflationary pressures (pay, bills, estates); a competitive market for UK and international students; the lack of full economic costs for research; the challenges of student hardship; and the lack of political (or public) appetite for more funding for higher education will all remain.

Debates over quality will not go away either. Politicians and the public (understandably) expect universities to offer a high-quality education and value for money. Student experience and the quality of provision will continue to be a focus of policy and regulation, albeit we’ll see less aggressive baring of regulatory teeth. While not abandoning a focus on outcomes, a Labour government will be more interested in ensuring that contextual factors are considered.

Skills, employment, flexible and lifelong learning will continue to be a focus. Employability and skills matter to the voting public, to parents and students.

Also, universities will not be a priority for a Labour government that is more likely to prioritise new funding for early years provision. Labour will want to ensure that it is not outflanked by Conservative pledges on childcare. Additionally, schools, colleges and apprenticeships are all likely to be of higher priority in terms of both funding and policy reforms than universities

The biggest issues for the next government might be tackling external events that it can’t avoid – as has been the case in recent years with Covid-19 dominating the political discourse and shaping the economy.

Economic woes could worsen – continuing inflation, Brexit challenges, energy supply problems – putting even greater pressure on public finances and cost of living challenges. The impact of China-Taiwan tensions has the potential to dominate the agenda.

I can’t predict exactly how universities will navigate the challenges of the decade ahead, albeit I am confident that they will find a way through. However, there are three things that are very important if universities are to continue to thrive rather than just survive:

  1. The quality of the student experience must be a priority – the academic experience, employment outcomes, student support, facilities and much more – at our best this is what is central to the value and attractiveness of a UK university degree.
  2. Public opinion matters, political views matter – universities need to be attuned to these and ensure they are demonstrating their value to individuals, communities and society – and addressing concerns that are raised.
  3. Despite the competitive environment, don’t forget the value of collaboration – many of the greatest challenges for the sector will be overcome by sharing ideas, co-developing solutions and working together, in the interests of students and in furthering the world’s knowledge.

2 responses to “Reflecting on a decade of higher education policy and politics – and looking ahead

  1. Thanks a well thought-out piece. I suppose the elephants in the room are two-fold: will there be even more separating between HE policies within the separate UK jurisdictions? And given we now have an open policy of unlimited HE participation, will we also have a more overt notion of how the parties stand on actual numbers of HEIs we need in a good system?

  2. Interesting but glib and rather glosses over the invidious impact of ‘competition’ – many traditional universities have indeed expanded rapidly, but rather than seeing this as an unproblematic good, as the author unquestioningly does, there’s no consideration +at all+ of the negative student experiences this has generated in many/most cases (just look at the NSS results…. Let alone of the calamitous impact on institutions, often provincial and not blessed to be in the self-selecting Russell Group, many of which actually offer a far better education and focus on student learning. Instead we’re just told this would be ‘difficult to roll back’ – a kind of ‘market knows best’ argument, even when that market is rigged and not producing the best outcomes?

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