After watching the United States muster enough administrative and postal-ballot-based gumption to hold a general election in the middle of this neverending pandemic, the UK government has decided that in 2021 we can have local and regional elections, as a treat.
This year will see races across hundreds of English local authorities, an important by-election in Hartlepool, the direct elections of dozens of mayors and police commissioners, as well as elections for the Welsh Senedd and the Scottish Parliament. The devolved administrations wield a fair amount of power with regard to higher education, so like almost no one who will vote in these elections, we’ve combed through the manifestos for their best and most questionable university focused content.
We’re starting in Wales, principally because the Scottish Labour and Conservative parties haven’t found the time to publish manifestos yet. Hopefully, they get their acts together before we have to give too much focus to Alba’s plans for R&D spending.
The Labour Party/Llafur Cymru
Currently the largest presence in the Senedd, the Welsh Labour higher education offer is as expected, making the right noises about parity of esteem between FE and HE, support for young people as the country moves beyond the pandemic, and the passage of the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill.
But while you might have seen Labour’s plans to set up a Welsh version of Erasmus, you might have missed their plans to establish a “Peace Academy”. Inspired by eisteddfodau, the traditional Welsh poetry and song contests, the academy would form a “independent community of researchers and help shape our international strategies and programmes”. I’m too English to know what the connection is, but it seems like a nice idea.
The Conservative Party/Ceidwadwyr Cymreig
When we first put this together there wasn’t actual manifesto from the Conservatives in Wales but a browse through their facebook page highlighted one new policy of interest: plans to halve tuition fees for students studying STEM and modern foreign languages at Welsh universities. Now the manifesto is here, we also spotted a compensation scheme for students whose course have been disrupted by the pandemic – and a Student Accommodation Quality Standard for student residences (two excellent ideas that we hope Conservatives in Westminster pick up on. There’s also an Institute of Technology proposed for North Wales.
While the other manifestos’ education plans broadly rhymed with work going on elsewhere in the UK, Plaid’s plans are specific and hyperlocal. If the voters of Wales elect them, Plaid promises to transform Wrexham into a centre for finance and culture, while Swansea is to become a hub for technology, all supported through collaboration with the local unis. The Plan for Arfor envisions new eco-centres, fueled by research-led spin-off companies from the universities of Bangor, Aberystwyth, and Trinity St. Davids.
Elsewhere, Plaid makes less ambitious but still significant promises. A ministerial review of post-16 education would end the “needless competition” between HE and FE, while by the end of Senedd term Welsh universities would be among the best funded in the UK through both increasing investment in R&D and expanding the number of places for local, UK, and international students.
Everyone else/Pawb arall
While only the three parties above have much hope of shaping Wales’ future, they’re not the only ones to have put down a deposit. Shame not all of them have much to say about higher education.
The Green Party, for example, promises that good vegan food will be on offer in all college and university canteens. And that’s the most specific thing it has to say about higher education, outside of a few obligatory nods to universities when discussing post-Covid recovery.
The Liberal Democrats currently hold only one Senedd seat – and the outgoing incumbent, Kirsty Williams, is the current Education Minister. We were hoping for skills wallets, instead we get the broadly similar “Personal Learning Accounts” as a right to lifelong learning. Elsewhere there’s a promise to expand degree apprenticeships, and a lot of promises to continue the plans that Willliams has set in motion.
The Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party wants to abolish the Welsh Assembly. They have absolutely nothing to say about higher education and honestly you shouldn’t be surprised. The previously single-issue named Brexit Party – now Reform UK – also has nothing to say.
The UKIP manifesto would see student nurses required to work for the NHS for three years after graduation, and commit the party to scrapping the Welsh Baccalaureate. There’d be no tuition fees for STEM students in Wales, one year of free higher education for every two years a person spends in the armed forces, and no funding at all for “social justice degrees” (Gender Studies is mentioned twice if that gives you any idea).
Meanwhile the minor and confused Propel party, whose primary issue is the end of coronavirus restrictions, do find space in their Contract with Wales for a plan to make Welsh universities world leaders in carbon capture. We say plan; it’s a sentence. Their actual energy plan is mostly about natural gas extraction.
Finally, the most substantial higher education plans among the minor parties comes from Gwlad (Welsh for nation), a populist national competitor to Plaid. Their ideas include scrapping UCAS and replacing it with a new “School University [sic] combined application system”, abolishing HEFCW (there’s a queue…), ending subsidies for Welsh students who study outside of Wales, and using hospital and university hubs to support young people to “work from home”. We liked that membership allows you to gain access to a private Slack channel.