University leaders in England should respond positively and imaginatively to both the character and the outcome of the June general election. Students have become seriously electorally engaged for the first time in many years, and delivered some remarkable results.
Fuelled by a deep commitment to human rights and internationalism, dynamically disseminated by social media, this engagement could well be set to grow.
June 2017 was the general election when the student and young people’s vote came of age, with turnout compared with 2015 reportedly up by one-third to 57 per cent. Undergraduate tuition fees were made into a central issue by Labour, whose manifesto pledged to abolish them. The party went on to win 43 of the 60 constituencies in the UK where full-time students make up 15 per cent or more of the adult population.
How should we respond to this new situation?
In relation to fees, we should press the government to take immediate action on several fronts. This September’s introduction of fees for undergraduate nursing and midwifery students should be cancelled, and new places created. There is a proven, growing shortage of nurses and midwives.
These students are a special case. To earn registration, they must work 2,100 hours in practice. They undertake night and weekend shifts, and work and study over a 45-week year. The midwives must successfully deliver 40 babies before qualification. They perform highly useful, yet unpaid, labour.
It is already clear that the imposition of fees is deterring excellent, motivated candidates who would make first-class nurses. This is hardly surprising; the new system will impose a 30-year pay cut on the modest, hard-earned salaries of these key graduate health professionals. The new system will mean that typical debt on graduation will be £53,000-plus, yet the very top of the NHS “Band 6” pay grade for well-qualified, experienced, frontline nurses is £35,577.
At this rate, take-home pay will be cut by 4.7 per cent, yet the real-terms debt will still increase as repayments will not outweigh the 3 per cent real interest charge.
The new policy is a disastrous brew; deterring new entrants; cutting the pay of society’s most trusted professionals; putting a very large occupational group in high, long-term debt while doing almost nothing for the public finances. A post-austerity approach is needed, combining the abolition of fees with increased placements in the health trusts. This would efficiently deliver what the people want – more high-quality nurses and midwives.
More generally, we should press to increase the threshold from which all student loans are repaid to £25,000, to take into account inflation since the threshold was first set. In addition, we should propose the elimination of the 3 per cent interest charge above the retail price index on student debt. A 3 per cent real rate of interest is most unfair. The 6.1 per cent headline rate from September will be widely considered a real rip-off. It should be replaced by the pre-2012 scheme where debt was subject to an inflation uplift and no more.
Another general election in the near future is not out of the question. We need to start work now on designing a fresh Higher Education and Research Act if needed. This should be an act that would provide intelligent regulation and sustainable financial support for a flourishing higher education system, rather than the current one that is hopelessly flawed with its failed philosophy and impossible intention of creating “perfect competition” in higher education.
A new government that can command a parliamentary majority to abolish undergraduate fees will need such an act. Such a government is a real possibility. Part of our non-party political responsibility to society is to work out feasible, funded practical policies that will help universities, whose progress is so essential for society, to thrive in the event of the election of HM Loyal Opposition and the enactment of its most memorable manifesto pledge.
The nature of Britain’s exit from the European Union was a significant electoral issue. Those wanting to shut down migration and international student education in the UK lost seats and standing. Ukip, with policies uniquely hostile to Europe and the country’s universities, met their electoral Waterloo. The new Parliament is more internationalist and supportive of higher education than its predecessor.
This welcome situation calls for a dynamic response from universities, including pressing with renewed vigour for the retention of the Erasmus+ scheme in its entirety or equivalent, plus a big extension of funds to promote international student mobility. We need a fresh, genuinely warm welcome for international students by the government, with new opportunities for post-study work visas. Continued access for British universities to European research programmes as well as to the European Investment Bank for financing long-term investments are key priorities.
Of course there are many other matters that need tackling. These include much needed investment in science, maths and computing, including a national programme to renew university science laboratories. A schools’ crisis looms. Our part in avoiding one, and helping schools to thrive, is to press for increased teacher training places, made on a three-year rolling basis, to encourage serious expansion and proper investment.
The outcome of this election indicates that a new national “common sense and common purpose” is being created. We should seize the time and face the future.
David Green is vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Worcester.