In the aftermath of this election, we're going to need academics more than ever

Nick Hillman looks at the implications of the election result for the university sector, and finds a small slither of silver lining

June 9, 2017
British police officers guarding 10 Downing Street entrance, London
Source: iStock

This has been a strange election. First, it was ruled out; then it was called. There was meant to be a landslide for the Conservatives; instead, we will end up with fewer Conservative MPs. The campaign itself was supposed to prove Jeremy Corbyn was inept; yet he has done better than previous Labour leader Ed Miliband. 

Above all, it was supposed to be the Brexit election, giving Theresa May a strong mandate in the forthcoming negotiations. Yet Brexit did not really feature and her political career has just taken its biggest ever hit. 

Overnight, the television pundits and politicians of all stripes were quick to ascribe the result in large part to Labour’s manifesto commitment to abolish tuition fees. Some constituencies linked to universities did indeed shift leftwards. For example, Nick Clegg was finally defeated in Sheffield Hallam, the Tory Julian Brazier (who was first elected in 1987) unexpectedly lost Canterbury and, another Tory, Nicola Blackwood was beaten by the Lib Dems in Oxford West and Abingdon.

In other places, such as Cambridge and various London seats with lots of students, wafer-thin Labour majorities have become rock-solid ones. 

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Yet it is still hard to put much of the overall result down to tuition fees. Students were backing Labour in overwhelming numbers long before the Labour manifesto announced the party's policy on the issue. Moreover, students remain sceptical about whether fees can actually be abolished, and were more motivated to vote Labour by other issues, including the NHS. 

So another issue that will need to be considered closely in coming days is the turnout of young people in general, rather than just students. It is at least possible that Labour’s increase in seats arose from young non-students coming out to vote in bigger numbers. They care less about tuition fees but had a range of other reasons for voting Labour. 

In the aftermath of the election, we are going to need academics to explain what happened more than ever before. Political scientists have an embarrassingly poor record in predicting recent election outcomes, although one area where they should have been listened to more is on the timing of elections. As I mentioned in a Times Higher Education blog back in April, many years ago Alastair Smith crunched the data and found prime ministers who call early elections get punished by the electorate.

It has just happened again. 

What does this all mean for the main higher education issues? Despite the turmoil, we will end up with another Conservative government, perhaps with some formal arrangement with Northern Ireland’s DUP. So the teaching excellence framework (TEF) will roll on and the Higher Education and Research Act will be fully implemented. 

I have said in recent weeks that the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment to review all tertiary education funding was more important than people realised. But, without an overall majority in the House of Commons, I may well be proved completely wrong. This is because, if such a review were to recommend major reforms, they will be hard to deliver without an overall majority. 

On the other hand, the idea of a new crackdown on international students, which was another commitment in the Tory manifesto, just became a whole lot harder. Given that all the other significant political parties want a warmer welcome for students from other countries, the reduction in Conservative MPs changes the balance of power on that one issue at least. Amidst the confusion and uncertainty, this may look to many in the higher education sector as a small bit of silver lining to some rather dark clouds. 

Another unexpected outcome that many people in higher education might welcome is that yesterday’s election could retrospectively become "the Brexit election" after all. The pound fell when the exit poll was published but rallied overnight after the markets realised a hard Brexit may have just become a whole lot harder to deliver. 

Finally, we should spare a thought for Theresa May by remembering how big a challenge she had set herself. The Tories won additional seats in each of the last four elections (2001, 2005, 2010 and 2015). To have repeated the trick for a fifth time after seven years in office would have been truly remarkable, even if it was what many of the polls had suggested would happen. 

Nick Hillman is the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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Reader's comments (1)

The needs of academics are the expression of what? For me only, what can be seen as needs! Where do they come from? can we say that fusions of research departments with localities, were excellent decisions! You must now face a great plus for consistent manoeuvres. Furthermore, I think learning vs student orientated within inductive logics, involve a greater implication too. What is very important according to me, is to keep on going ! With the Greatest Person in the World : God !!!


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