With HE funding policy hardly the doorstep issue it was in 2010, party manifesto pledges are not making the headlines. For those of us at the sharp end in the sector, there is still plenty to think about.
As AHUA members gathered for the Spring Conference in Stirling last week, the party manifestoes were on the point of publication (only Labour’s had been published at the time).
Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of UUK, spoke to members about the various possible election outcomes and the subsequent impact of the election on HE over the next 12 months.
The manifestoes, all now available, are pretty unsurprising in their approach to funding policy in relation to fees.
The Tories propose sticking with the current £9000 fee, as do the Liberal Democrats, who of course want to steer as far clear as possible from people reminding them of their broken promise of 2010 on no fees (although there is little chance of the NUS allowing them to do so with their ‘Liar, Liar’ campaign).
Labour have committed to capping fees at £6000, and have said they would make up the shortfall, although it’s not clear where from. The SNP have expressed support for this wider UK policy, whilst stating they will continue free education in Scotland.
The Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru all have variations on the theme that students should not pay fees; UKIP promotes the abolition of fees for STEM subjects and EU students paying the same level of fees as International ones do.
The real issues are, of course, absent from the manifestoes. There seems to be no real move to address the key challenges of living costs for students, which are the main issue given that fees are not payable up-front. And the elephant in the room which is that the entire current system is unaffordable beyond the short-term anyway.
On science and research spending all parties have identified a commitment to stability. Labour promise a ‘new long-term funding policy framework’; Conservatives would ‘initiate a multi-year science and research budget to provide a stable investment climate’, both across the UK. Notably neither commits to ring-fencing the science budget, although the Lib Dems do so. Plaid Cymru have stated that they would seek to get a greater share of UK and EU funding.
Another issue, which is not a funding policy, but would have direct funding consequences, is the parties’ stances on immigration and international students.
Conservatives, UKIP and Labour outline the different ways they would further tighten up immigration, whilst the Greens, SNP and Liberal Democrats all talk of separating international students from overall immigration and other ways of welcoming more international students. Any tightening or loosening of immigration policy will obviously have a direct impact on universities’ ability to sustain and grow international numbers and as such, income.
All of which brings us of course to the other key question, as very clearly (if depressingly) articulated by Nicola Dandridge… How can this be achieved in the current public spending climate?
It’s been calculated by the IFS on current (Coalition) spending plans that the cut to BIS over the lifetime of next government is 26.5%. 67% of the BIS budget goes on HE, research and science. So it looks extremely unlikely that the current ring-fence can be continued into the next parliament.
When you set this alongside the alarming perception in Whitehall that Universities are ‘awash with cash’ you begin to see the level of challenge we have ahead.
For AHUA members and colleagues, we need to start gathering our evidence to show that we are working efficiently and that UKHE plc needs to be robustly supported.