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The Wonkhe higher education general election manifesto briefing 2019

What do the general election manifestos say about higher education? David Kernohan sifts through the pledges
This article is more than 2 years old

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

Remember the post-18 review of fees and funding – launched with great fanfare by Theresa May at Derby College?

It was a reaction to the then prevalent meme that a better-than-expected showing for Labour in the 2017 election was down entirely to their promise to abolish fees, and aimed to give the Conservative an attractive and responsible position on student finance that could be sold on the doorstep. It clearly didn’t work.

The Conservative Party promises to “carefully consider” Augar’s proposals for £7,500 fees topped up by the treasury, and to look again at interest rates on loan repayments – but his emphasis on skills, further education, and adult learning is everywhere.

If you want the campaign in a nutshell the Labour manifesto is all about shock and awe, the Conservatives is more strong and stable, and the Liberal Democrats has more than a whiff of “will this do?” We’ve seen pledges from every single potential member of any “coalition of chaos” – other than the Scottish National Party (that’s due Wednesday 27 November). But what are they saying about higher education?

Fees and Funding

The Conservative party says:

The Augar Review made thoughtful recommendations on tuition fee levels, the balance of funding between universities, further education and apprenticeships and adult learning, and we will consider them carefully. We will look at the interest rates on loan repayments with a view to reducing the burden of debt on students.”

The response from the government to the review (released in the spring of 2019) is already long overdue. Augar suggested a sliding scale of interest rates, with higher earners paying more interest. The Conservatives also promise 14,000 new undergraduate nursing students and 5,000 new nursing degree apprenticeships.

The most radical proposals, as expected, are from Labour and the Green Party. Labour promise an end to tuition fees (from December 13, as an excitable Angela Rayner claimed) alongside a new funding formula that includes “adequate” funding for teaching and research, a sustained focus on widening access and part time learning, and an end to the casualisation of staff. In government, Labour would also “look at” the issue of existing student debt.

The Green Party proposals run along similar lines to Labour – it too would scrap undergraduate tuition fees, alongside a commitment to write off debt for all students who paid fees above £9,000.

The Brexit Party would scrap the interest on student loans, claiming this would increase the debt recovery rate. The Liberal Democrats are promising the same review of sector finance (in the same words) as in every manifesto since 2015. There’s also a commitment to end retrospective rate raises and sales of the loan book.

In Wales, Plaid Cymru would carry out their own review of higher education finance for undergraduate and postgraduate students, covering fees and living costs. There would be no tuition fees for Welsh students studying certain subjects in Wales.

So what does this all tell us? None of these are progressive pledges, in the sense that scrapping fees (or either lowering or abolishing interest rates) is a greater subsidy for better-off graduates (who would likely repay their entire fee loan) than for the less well off, who would not. Arguably everyone benefits from abolishing fees, but this prompts questions about whether a “middle class subsidy” could be better used elsewhere. Such is the nature of higher education election pledges – they need to play well on in soundbites, not in policy implementation.

The more radical end of these ideas come alongside a wider view of skills provision – the National Education Service (as I’ve noted on Wonkhe before) could have a far reaching effect on what universities currently do. FE and skills feature far more prominently in most of these documents – we should note the Conservative spending promise on “rebuilding” FE colleges, capital is always easier to find than the recurrent funds that such institutions arguably need.

Student support

Though Jim Dickinson and others have their well-founded suspicions the return of maintenance grants for students is a popular cause – and arguably more popular than the end of fees. So it is surprising that no parties are calling for the direct replacement of maintenance loans with grants in 2019.

Labour are pushing for a return to grants for the poorest students (the old 2015 system), Plaid Cymru proposes a subsidy for Welsh students studying in Wales, the Green party would – nebulously – “fully fund” every student.

The Conservatives, Greens, and Labour would reinstate the nursing student bursary scrapped in 2006 – Labour extending the promise to midwifery and allied health. The Liberal Democrats would take a more gradual approach, starting with bursaries for mental health and learning disability nursing students. For all these parties this raises the idea of number controls – the 14,000 new undergraduate trainee nurses from the Conservatives feels particularly like a hard cap.

Following on from Norman Lamb’s not universally popular intervention earlier this year – the Liberal Democrats would:

Require universities to make mental health services accessible to their students, and introduce a Student Mental Health Charter through legislation… [and] establish a Student Mental Health Charter which will require all universities and colleges to ensure a good level of mental health provisions and services for students.”


As England has a shiny new(ish) regulator in the Office for Students, parties are clearly keen to use it.

The Liberal Democrats would “strengthen” the Office for Student – emphasising work on widening access, work with schools and colleges, and admissions. Likewise, the Conservatives would charge the OfS will looking at increasing access, but with a particular focus on “all ages”. There’s also stuff on grade inflation and low quality courses, and improvements to the application and offer system.

Labour would move the OfS into their National Education Service plans, as an advocate for public interest rather than a regulator. This would be alongside a fundamental rethink of the assessment of teaching and research quality, and – somewhat surprisingly – the implementation of post-qualification assessment.

The Green Party sees university courses as “learning experiences” not pre-work training. And there is similar education for education’s sake language from the Liberal Democrats.

Research and development

Research pledges tend to link closely to brexit plans – with leave-focused parties focusing on the “sunlit uplands” beyond the EU, and remain-focused parties emphasizing the benefits to UK research from continuing to participate in EU funding programmes.

An example of the former would be the Brexit Party maintaining the current levels of existing EU “subsidies”, claiming “this is our money already, recycled by the EU”. In contrast the Liberal Democrats say they will “protect our world-leading higher education sector by stopping Brexit”.

Plaid Cymru promises to replace EU funding with supported research in higher education in the event of brexit (though the preference is for no brexit). The Conservative party would “continue to collaborate internationally and with the EU on scientific research, including Horizon”. Labour promise:

 Continued participation in EU agencies and funding programmes, including in such vital areas of co-operation as the environment, scientific research and culture”

Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives all have striking intentions to significantly increase national spending on R&D. Labour would aim for 3 per cent of GDP by 2030, the Liberal Democrats promise 2.4 per cent by 2027 with three per cent as a longer term target. The Conservatives remain committed to the 2.4 per cent target, noting that it would represent the fastest ever increase in domestic public R&D spending.

So there is a consensus among the major parties that research spending will increase sharply in the coming decade, although none are clear what proportion of this will be in the form of government grants to university researchers via existing systems. There’s various proposals for new funders, for example the Green Party would inaugurate a Food and Agriculture Research Council, Labour a Foundation Industries Sector Council, and the Conservative DARPA-like agency makes an appearance too.

The culture wars

To many voters, how universities work is less important than what they stand for – the sectors’ supportive, internationalist, image has lost it some friends in recent times.

Both the Brexit Party and the Conservative Party want to strengthen free speech in universities, the former via an explicit obligation (like, for example, the 1986 Education (No 2) Act?). The Brexit Party are also keen to scrap Tony Blair’s late 90s target of a 50 per cent higher education participation rate for young people – a promise that seemingly lives on after the target has been surpassed.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats would give 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote in elections.

The Conservatives repeat their promise on changes to post-study work visas – a pledge for two year post-study employment visas that the Liberal Democrats would match.

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