While reading the Augar report is unlikely to be one of the first things the Prime Minister does when taking office (it is actually writing letters to nuclear submarine commanders to keep in their safe giving them instructions what to do after a nuclear missile launch) it is clear that education, and in particular further and higher education, are shaping some of the debate around the Conservative party leadership candidates.
This particular leadership contest is unusual as the winner will also become Prime Minister the same day. The last time the Conservative party had a leadership contest was 14 years ago when David Cameron beat David Davis to become the fourth leader of the Opposition to face Tony Blair. Prior to that, it was John Major taking over as Prime Minister and party leader from Mrs Thatcher in 1990. How times have changed.
Tuition fees and higher education were part of the debate even then. In the 2005 general election, Michael Howard went in promising to scrap tuition fees. However, Tony Blair was re-elected and so that policy was rapidly killed off by David Cameron, who had been shadow education secretary under Michael Howard, and recognised the need for additional funding for universities and students to be more demanding about their teaching.
In that intervening period since 2005 numbers of students aspiring to enter higher education has grown and so have overall numbers – all of this against a backdrop of increasing fees. But so too has the politics of higher education, as the current leadership battle will attest.
The political terrain on “place” since the EU referendum has shifted. As well as the broader good of higher education that we in universities know about (though many elsewhere do not) such as better health outcomes, more active citizenship, less likely to commit crime, graduates by and large earn more. But because of the work many graduates do they are also more likely to be located in cities rather than towns or villages. This has caused a disconnect between a wider understanding of universities and the communities they serve but also the work they do for the wider population.
As universities have become increasingly globalised places both in terms of staff and students they can often be characterised in the “nowhere” camp in the “Nowhere and Somewhere” debate on place, in the words of David Goodhart. Students and staff may have moved across the country (or the world) to study or work there and do not feel as rooted as many might do in their local community. This reached a new low when at the 2016 Conservative party conference, Theresa May said, “if you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere” to further reinforce that point.
Since the Brexit referendum these place-based arguments have become starker. The UPP Foundation and the Civic University Commission are doing great work on this but they, along with the Augar review, have shown that those post-16 education settings associated with place such as further education colleges, part-time higher education providers, and work-based study providers have all faced decline in the past 20 years. After all someone is unlikely to move across the country to undertake a work-based foundation degree. It is therefore starting to gain political traction that the more you provide access to opportunities locally then the more rooted and settled a community can become. Electorally, the Conservative Party has been more successful in recent years in towns and rural areas rather than in cities and some suburbs. Therefore it makes political sense for the party to reinforce those institutions delivering mainly further education and vocational training.
There will always be a strong interest from MPs for funding research in which traditionally the UK has always done so well. This is particularly the case through EU structures but in other areas can enhance Britain’s global reach, especially in the US and Commonwealth. In the current political climate, there is less appetite for making the case for funding full-time undergraduate education.
Meet the candidates
Boris Johnson – deemed the frontrunner at the time of writing. Boris was educated at Eton and Oxford and was of course shadow higher education minister before he left Parliament in 2008 to become London Mayor. I met him on a number of occasions in this role and in particular remember him giving some impactful but amusing speeches on higher education. He wrote a witty piece back in 2007 on the subject of Mickey Mouse courses (which he defends with vigour) and in 2006 to the BBC he said “One Man’s Mickey Mouse course is another man’s literae humaniores.” Boris has previously said universities should be free to decide what courses to teach. Of course Boris’s brother Jo, a former and well-respected universities minister could end up in a more prominent role should there be a Boris win.
Sajid Javid – one of the few Conservative MPs to be educated at a further education college (Filton College in Bristol) before heading to Exeter University. As the son of first generation immigrants Sajid has made great play of “education being an engine of social mobility” and has committed to a multi-billion ten-year plan for education which would include universities. Sajid has also said he would consider as PM allowing international students to stay for two years to work post-graduation. He was business secretary after the 2015 general election so had overall responsibility for higher education and research when it was solely located in BIS. The current universities minister Chris Skidmore is also backing Sajid in the leadership race and so too is Robert Halfon, chair of the education select committee.
Jeremy Hunt – presently foreign secretary and educated at Charterhouse and Oxford University. Jeremy founded Hotcourses, the educational guidance company, which has since spun out and expanded, but gave this up on entering Parliament in 2005. He also spent a year in Japan teaching after university. He later met his wife when she was recruiting Chinese students for Warwick University. Jeremy has called for the interest rate on student loans to be reduced and wishes to see more support for entrepreneurs who come straight from university.
Michael Gove – best known as education secretary (then only covering schools) from 2010-14 made various policy commitments on initial teacher training, social work education and curriculum changes which even now are still making their way through the education system. During his time as education secretary he was critical of what he perceived as the teacher education establishment, which he referred to as the Blob. Michael hasn’t directly commented on universities as part of the leadership campaign yet but it is possible this could come up particularly in relation to tuition fees and value for money. We will watch any further comments with interest.
There are of course other candidates in the contest but it is unclear at this stage how many others outside of this list will make it near the end. All of us may be surprised with a Rory Stewart win but I wouldn’t bet the house on it.
As it stands we will wait to hear who the new Prime Minister is, the week commencing 22 July after a poll of approx. 120,000 Conservative party members. Whoever is the victor will have to hit the ground running with a myriad of international issues to deal with, not least the ticking clock of Brexit as well as many domestic issues (Augar included) to contend with. The first set piece event I expect will be their first party conference as Prime Minister in Manchester in October. It certainly seems a long time until that point…