Catherine Webb Posted by Catherine Webb on 26th May, 2015

Fasten your seatbelts

In the third of our General Election 2015 series, Carol Burns, Registrar and Secretary at the University of Brighton, reflects on the implications of a Conservative government for HE in England.

After the surprising outcome of the 2010 election, where the Conservatives were bolstered by the support of the Liberal Democrats in a coalition, many thought this year’s result would be similarly split. Pollsters, pundits and politicians were shocked by the outcome, however, as the Conservatives won a clear majority while their former coalition partners were reduced to just eight members of parliament. There is no doubt that the Scottish effect played a significant part in voting behaviour south of the border, not least in my own constituency on the south coast where one elderly voter was deeply put out when the polling clerk was unable to provide him with a voting slip bearing the name of Nicola Sturgeon!

The 8th of May proved a tumultuous day for the opposition parties. In the space of an hour we saw Nigel Farage, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband all resign from their positions as party leaders. While Farage has since resurrected his leadership, both the Lib Dems and the Labour Party are now regrouping ahead of their internal leadership campaigns.

Where Labour proposed to slash the new fees to £6000, universities were not at the centre of the Tories 2015 manifesto.

Things are moving at speed and some of the Government’s more controversial pieces of legislation may appear early on whilst the opposition parties are nursing their bruises and dealing with their own factions. Time is of the essence whilst the Tories have a majority and before everything is focused on the major cuts we can expect to come. With the Queen’s Speech tomorrow and a new budget on 8 July we can expect a fast pace for the next few months.

Freed from the need to please coalition partners, the Tories are now focussing on revisiting old ground and legislating on legislation. Late last week Theresa May went on the Today programme to defend the need to introduce measures to make illegal working illegal and the week before we heard more about plans to introduce legislation to deal with radicalisation whilst the ink is not yet dry on the CounterTerrorism and Security Act 2015. The media have started to characterise this as “addressing blue collar concerns”.

When asked about extra funding to implement the illegal working measures, Mrs May insisted no more money was needed. This could all be done by “doing things better”, not by spending more. No more resources are required in the Border Force, she said, because the problem is not at the border. The problem is with those who crossed the border legally and then overstayed. She talked of landlords’ obligations to check the immigration status of prospective tenants as one means to “do things better”. No doubt she has other targets in her sights to support this endeavour and we might expect to hear more.

Although Mrs May refused to confirm that the reduction in net migration to the tens of thousands is still a “promise”, she did agree it was an “objective” and it would seem that during this parliament the objective may be equally focused on European as well as international migrants. With 57% of migrant workers being from the EU, one of the core terms that the Government will be seeking to renegotiate ahead of the EU Referendum must be the free movement of member citizens.

And as the In/Out debate heats up Universities will also have to work together to ensure that the voting public understands what the EU means to our nation’s Research agenda and UUK has already prioritised the campaign for staying in. Last week also saw the CBI take a public stance.

What else can we expect to appear when we look back at the Conservative manifesto? Might we expect to see an HE Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech or will Government seek to make changes without tackling primary legislation? Will there be a more radical outcome arising from the review of QAA given their manifesto commitment to introduce a new framework for teaching quality? Will we see a further bonfire of the quangos? The Conservatives’ commitment to no student number cap potentially sets a challenge for future funding – without any indexation of fees or loans in the last government term, will this be sustainable over the next term? And what about the future of the loan book? And what about the future of teacher, doctors and nurses education?

Other issues that may be occupying our thoughts over the coming months include regional development and the growth of apprenticeships. As the Government seeks to fulfil its election promise of further devolution for Scotland and Wales, to build a Northern Powerhouse and to bring devolution to more English cities along the Manchester model, where does that leave the balance of funding for LEPs and Regional Growth Funds in the South? Some significant impact could already be discerned before the election as money moved north to marginal constituencies. Is this set to continue? And if we do see significant growth in apprenticeships will this dent demand for university places?

BIS survived to the surprise of many but is expected to take a pretty big hit on its budget. And what of our new Ministers? Both Jo Johnson and Sajid Javid are close to the Chancellor which bodes well. According to the Bromley Times, “In the past, [Jo Johnson] has spoken out on the importance of allowing students to come to the UK”. There is no record of where or in what context he spoke out – it certainly doesn’t appear in recent Hansard records – but at least he is on record somewhere*. Mr Johnson holds an MBA from INSEAD and a special certificate from the Institut d’Etudes Européennes de l’Université Libre de Bruxelles and has published in French. Let’s hope this means he for one does believe in the benefits of internationalising higher education and allowing the flow of students in and out of the country.

*An AHUA member has found the source of this information in an article from the FT in 2012. Please note that the article is behind a paywall.

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