Can the Tory sensibles learn to love universities?

The centre-right establishment seems to be moving in that direction.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

When Policy Exchange, Public First, the Centre for Policy Studies, the Adam Smith Institute, Onward, and the Conservative Environment Network come together, it is very much a festival of the favoured “sensible” influencers and thinkers on the centre-right.

So we should treat the unsolicited policy advice that crept into the Telegraph late on Tuesday evening as something of a consensus across much of the centre-right establishment that has generated the policies underpinning every winning manifesto since the days of Ed Miliband.

Takes – get them while they are hot

And it is striking that many of the ideas put forward are at least broadly positive for universities – we get a clear call to retain planned investment in research and development, the “Oxford-Cambridge Arc” as a placeholder for expanding both accommodation and commercial space around research-intensive universities, and another push to sort out the planned Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) on time.

There’s also a coded dig at the Office for Students in plans to give “regulators in a variety of sectors a stronger duty to make the UK the best place in the world to innovate” – who drives more innovation, after all, than universities?

Admittedly these are top-level ideas, not detailed implementation plans – but given their provenance we can expect to see all or most feature in the next Conservative manifesto.

Doctor Jekyll and Professor Hyde

While I welcome the idea of government working to address actual existing problems by enacting solutions that have at least some chance of solving them, in campaigning this is often balanced with the seemingly inexhaustible impetus for culture wars. This is very much the “red meat” (and it only appears to excite certain parts of the party base – I always enjoy reading polling tables just to note how little traction these issues actually have in the wider population), and you don’t have to have been following news that closely to spot that universities are often on the receiving end there too.

As Paul Greatrix noted this morning, there is a sense that universities do not help themselves in these situations – communications nationally and locally don’t always hit what is a very difficult mark between response, defence, and capitulation. We can take some solace in that is a generationally toxic party approach (a lot is riding on the current generation of students – a slim majority of young people – eventually forgetting how terribly they’ve been treated when the opportunity comes to pay less tax later in life), and that it actually needs to be dialled down as the general public takes an interest. There’s a long form article on the Badenoch campaign I’d love someone to write.

But, when “sensible” polices come out to play (the Telegraph article, perhaps deliberately doesn’t mention levelling up) it does seem that universities are part of a national solution more than they are a national problem. Should the Conservative Party be minded to win the next election, ending the last six years of hostility to the sector and to students may be a good first step.

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