The imminent general election (most likely about a year away), the consistent Labour polling leads and the evisceration of Conservative power in local government at the end of last week have all combined to rather concentrate the mind.
Just what would a Keir Starmer government mean for higher education?
For better or worse, it is challenging to see anything much beyond the huge great elephant that has occupied the room labelled “Labour’s university policy” since Keir took over the leadership of his party from Jeremy Corbyn in 2020: what will he do about tuition fees?
Last week the Labour leader was forced by some awkward leaking to admit publicly for the first time what we all knew already: that there was no way he was going to stick to the Corbyn-era policy of free HE for all.
And so we are left with other questions: what should Labour do? What room does it have for manoeuvre? What should it commit to in private? What should it say in public before an election?
Opinions are free
There are, of course, no shortage of groups from within the sector with views on this. Students, unions, lecturers, VCs, mission groups, policy wonks, commentators and politicians (some expert, some less so) all believe they know what’s best.
But no one has really properly asked the one group that Keir and Labour care about more than any other just now: the voters.
This is why Public First, where I am a partner, is working with think tank Progressive Britain and a coalition of universities (Greenwich, Manchester, Warwick and York) to carry out the biggest ever public opinion-testing exercise on this subject.
Using the most modern polling techniques and a finely-honed approach to qualitative focus grouping, we plan to really find out what normal people think about how universities should be funded and the trade-offs that it necessitates (for example, number controls against free tuition).
We will try to discover how important progressive approaches to student finance are, to a wide range of social and electoral segments- including students, graduate and non graduates in both the “blue wall” and the “red wall”.
There will be those, no doubt, who say that this issue is only of limited political salience. And to the extent that it’s unlikely to challenge the cost of living and the NHS for electoral primacy, that is indeed true.
But that doesn’t mean that it will not be hugely important. We are reasonably sure, for instance, that there are upwards of 10 or more seats where this issue could swing the result. If anyone was paying any attention to the analysis of the local elections last week, they will know that 10 seats could well spell the difference between Starmer forming a majority government or being forced to fish around for support elsewhere to prop him up.
It is also important not to underestimate the significance to Labour of understanding how all its polity challenges – and tuition fees are right up there – are playing land more broadly with the electoral coalition it will need to pin together in 2024, from Stoke and Stoke Newington.
And so we will set out to discover if there is a way of creating a coherent set of HE funding policies that can be satisfactory to both voters in the post industrial north-east and metropolitan graduates of cities like Bristol.
This, then, will be our challenge: to begin to map the mother of all electoral and policy triangulations. It will not be easy – and we will most certainly fail to come up with all the answers – but, boy, will it be fascinating.