Last week, my colleague Nick Hillman shared his experience of the Labour Party conference, comparing it with the 15 or more such events that he has attended in the past. Unlike Nick, I am a conference fresher and have spent the past four days with the Conservatives in Manchester, immersed in discussions at my first party convention.
As someone who works in higher education policy, it’s not by coincidence that I refer to myself as a fresher. Walking into the expansive conference hall, with its various stalls and exhibitions, I was instantly transported back to my own first week at university, wandering around lost at a bustling freshers’ fair. Only this time, instead of being surrounded by overwhelmed and enthusiastic students, I found myself among a unique mix of party activists, policy wonks and a constantly roving Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Higher education was never far from the top of the conference agenda. With the event opening in the wake of speculation around a government review of the student finance system, there could be no doubt that this conference was the Tories’ chance to win back younger voters and reassert itself as the “party of aspiration”.
The message emanating from the central hall was clear: education, for the Conservatives, “is about levelling up opportunity”. And attacks on Labour policy were frequent. Andrew RT Davies, leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the country’s National Assembly, criticised Welsh Labour for hiking tuition fees to a level higher than anywhere else in the UK just four weeks after the national Labour Party pledged to abolish them. Justine Greening, the education secretary, proclaimed Labour’s “perverse” cap on student numbers to be “literally a cap on aspiration”; while Damian Green, minister for the Cabinet Office, used his speech to show how allowing more disadvantaged students to go to university is “modern, compassionate Conservatism” in action.
The real scrutinising of higher education policy took place at the fringe events, however. On Tuesday, Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, chaired a debate between universities minister Jo Johnson and Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert fame on the health of the student loans system. While Lewis called for transparency over the parental contribution element, the two men were in broad agreement over the need to move towards a graduate contribution system that is time-limited and income-contingent.
The future status of international students at UK universities and colleges also raised its head at a Bright Blue panel featuring NUS president Shakira Martin and Sir David Warren, former British ambassador to Japan. Here, the message that prevailed was one of the “soft power” benefits of international education. With a nod to a recent HEPI study revealing UK higher education institutions to have educated more of the world’s leaders than any other country, the panel agreed that international students are the key to developing the strong global relationships essential for a post-Brexit Britain.
The links between universities and economic prosperity were further explored by a roundtable discussion, co-hosted by HEPI with UPP Limited, on universities as regional hubs for growth. While there was overwhelming consensus that universities are effective agents for local regeneration, the most inspiring story came from the leadership of the University of Central Lancashire, which has, just this week, taken in medical students displaced by Hurricane Irma, showing how our higher education institutions really have the power to rebuild and regenerate for a truly “global Britain”.
Yet, just as all good freshers’ weeks come to an end, so too do all good party conferences, and this one ended with the prime minister’s confirmation of a “major review” of university funding and student finance. The term that awaits ahead, then, is sure to keep all of us in the sector busy, and we can consider the timetable firmly set to continue the discussions so ardently started here in Manchester over the past few days.
Diana Beech is director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute.