Conservative conference 2017: universities and students must be part of May’s HE review

Pam Tatlow returns from the 2017 Conservative Party conference with food for thought (and beer to drink)

October 5, 2017
Manchester, Manchester central, conference
Source: iStock
The 2017 Conservative Party conference took place at Manchester Central

On T-shirts, mugs, bins, bollards, mosaic floors and the City’s coat of arms, bees are everywhere in Manchester. Adopted early in the city’s rise to prominence in the Industrial Revolution, they were a symbol of industriousness but also well-being and wealth (at least for some of its citizens).

In contrast, Manchester Central, a former railway station now used as a conference venue, was not quite the beehive of activity for the Conservatives that the pre-election polls (or indeed prime minister Theresa May herself) had predicted. Nonetheless, even small beehives have soldier bees, so the way in which “prankster” Simon Brodkin gained a conference pass and presented Ms May with a “P45” during her speech will raise serious questions about security, but could also trigger some sympathy (as might the cough sweet offered to her by chancellor Philip Hammond). 

Inevitably, the higher education fringe events at the 2017 Conservative Party conference were initially dominated by discussions of the prime minister’s announcements about frozen fees and uplifted earnings thresholds, with economic consultancy London Economics first out of the block. Its assessment found that the former would cost £2.68 billion per cohort and increase the Resource Accounting and Budgeting (RAB) charge (the proportion of student loan debt that will be written off) to 44.6 per cent. Those who think that this is something for taxpayers and the Treasury 30 years down the line are mistaken; every year the Department for Education’s accounts includes an impairment that represents a proportion of the RAB charge of the current student cohort. Freezing fees is a financial haircut for universities in more ways than one. 

These party pronouncements are yet to be converted into government policy (and the tabling of any associated legislative regulations). Assuming that they apply to 2012 regime students and not the 2006-11 cohorts, lower-earning graduates from the latter will be potentially worse off than their peers who are studying, or have more recently studied, for a degree. And let’s not forget the Student Loans Company, already creaking under the many changes to the funding regimes imposed since 2010. Unless the latter has more resources and is managed more effectively, the problems experienced by some students and graduates will get worse and cost more to sort out in the long run. 

The prime minister used her conference speech to announce that there will be a major review of university funding and student financing in England. No one has been clear whether the DfE, Cabinet Office and Treasury ducks were all in a row on this issue. 

Although MillionPlus called for a review before the election (and the National Union of Students has been rightly passionate about the need to improve student support), the sector needs to be clear that the terms of reference and the timing of this cannot be manufactured at the heart of government. Predetermined answers to predetermined questions won’t wash. Universities and students need to be engaged in the terms of reference, as well as in the review itself. While higher education funding is devolved, any review will impact on Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales where the Welsh government has agreed to implement the Diamond review of fees and funding. 

Read more news and analysis from the party conferences

Notwithstanding a range of policy announcements, this was always going to be the Conservatives’ Brexit conference. The concern for universities and students must be that, while the Boris Johnson “leadership challenge” was roundly criticised by Cabinet colleagues, it may have cemented the mood for a “hard” Brexit among Conservative members. A fringe event on the future role of the European Court of Justice concluded that an advantage of Brexit was the court’s demise in terms of any future role in the UK. Unsurprisingly, but disconcertingly, ministers are unable to answer questions on everything from immigration and citizenship status to the potential for the UK to have associate status in the future.

Universities and businesses might hope that there will be less heat and more light in the future. In the meantime, the mantra of ministers that it will be up to what “we negotiate” may wear thin. 

So, as the curtain closes on the 2017 Conservative conference, we return to that post-conference dilemma: what souvenir to get for MillionPlus’ own “worker bees” back in the office? A smart step around Manchester’s Art Gallery provided the answer.

The gallery is well worth a visit, even for the 30 minutes that we had to spare, and the gallery shop sells wild honey beer. Job done!

On Sunday, we set off to Glasgow for the last roll of the MillionPlus/NUS 2017 conference dice, where we look forward to seeing our member universities and NUS colleagues at the Scottish National Party conference.

Pam Tatlow is chief executive of MillionPlus.

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