General election 2017: government must now review university funding

For the good of the country, ministers must now look at their stance on international students and tuition fees, writes Pam Tatlow

June 9, 2017
London, westminster, parliament, government
Source: iStock

So, those pesky students – who were supposed to be consumers happy with their lot – have confounded the pundits and a Conservative Party that declined to commit in the Higher Education Act to an improved system of student voter registration but also did next to nothing to encourage young people to register to vote.

Revenge, as they say, is a dish best eaten cold – and from Canterbury, to Reading East, to Sheffield Hallam, student voters changed electoral outcomes in historic ways. 

The last seven weeks have also revealed that campaigns about education, health and, indeed, fair taxation went some way to ensuring that the election was not just about Brexit.

When parents, children, teachers and other education staff were seen on YouTube singing “schools just wanna have funds” you would have beene forgiven for thinking that things might not have been going all Theresa May’s way.

 

 

Apart from young people having their say, the polling analysis will undoubtedly confirm that women, especially those working in public services, were not convinced that voting for a female prime minister was in the interests of those services, about which they care deeply and which they see as important to their families. 


Which constituencies did students influence the most?


Of course, whatever damage to her own personal standing, Theresa May will seek to form a government, albeit with the backing of the DUP – a party that backed Brexit although Northern Ireland voted to remain. It remains unclear how this will impact the Brexit negotiations starting on 19 June. Interestingly, the DUP refers to “higher and further education continuing to attract international expertise and collaboration” in its manifesto. No mention of students then, and it remains to be seen whether Theresa May will demonstrate the flexibility on international students that eluded her as home secretary and prime minister. 

So where does this leave universities? First, let’s be clear that, at least in England, they risk opening up a yawning divide between them and their students unless they recognise that young people simply do not accept and are prepared to vote to change the current higher education funding system. In this respect, MillionPlus was the only university group to recognise in its manifesto that the fees and funding of universities in England should be reviewed.

There are good reasons for the new government to accept this advice unless they want to repeat the mistake of ignoring young people and their parents, many of whom think that a student loan is ultimately a debt. 

Then there is Brexit. We have set out a game plan for the UK government to ensure that universities can continue to trade with the EU, which is, after all, our nearest market, providing access to 500 million people. We should not shy away from these asks because, let’s be clear, “no deal” will be a very bad deal – not only for universities and students but for the UK as a whole. 

Finally, there are big questions about the economy, which is running on consumer debt – and not just that of students and graduates. With further questions about whether the UK government can carry the confidence of the House of Commons on an uncertain electoral programme, investors face their own conundrums. 

In light of all of this, any government should want to secure economic growth based on improved productivity and bang for buck in the regions. They need to pick up the phone. Universities, in particular modern universities, are not the problem as some in No 10 seemed to think, but the solution to ensuring some stability and more innovation even if the heart of government seems to be much less strong and stable on 9 June than it did when Theresa May returned from her walking holiday in Snowdon a mere seven weeks ago. 

Pam Tatlow is chief executive of MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities.

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