Theresa May has been no stranger to the higher education sector over the past six years.
As home secretary, she has consistently pressed down on immigration – including by overseas students – even while the chancellor and previous business secretary, Vince Cable, were remarkably open (within the constraints of Cabinet government) about the fact that they would prefer a different approach.
Although she campaigned for Remain, since the EU referendum she has ruled out a quick deal on the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. By doing so, she has perpetuated uncertainty for the large numbers of staff in UK universities who are EU citizens and no doubt contributed to an environment in which UK universities will find it harder than before to attract researchers and students from around the EU.
Now that she is set to become prime minister, on the basis of this record, spirits across the sector might be falling. But there are some reasons for optimism.
The first is simply that she is as prime minister more likely to provide competent and careful leadership of the process of Brexit than the alternative candidates her party was considering. She was, after all, a highly Eurosceptic Remainer; she might have been disposed to leaving, then looked at the risks and decided against it. There was no false prospectus on her part. Although in the end her judgement may be beside the point; the issues that need to be settled are daunting, the mood on the other side of the negotiation is uncompromising and the potential for any prime minister to make mistakes is very high.
Nevertheless, the second reason for being upbeat about Prime Minister May is that her Cabinet and government will, on domestic policy, provide a high level of continuity. Where universities are taking measures to improve access, prepare for the teaching excellence framework (TEF) or improve or run local schools, these are likely to remain good investments rather than turn into sunk costs because of major shifts in policy.
Then there is her wider economic policy, or the hints about it that we have had so far. Speaking in 2013, she said “we need to build on the work the chancellor has already done through local enterprise partnerships and enterprise zones, as well as the efforts of David Willetts in the Business Department, and expand our nascent industrial strategy”. This conception of the strategic state is typically associated with granting a bigger role to universities in their local economies and growing the investment in research and development.
In the same speech, she also spoke about “deep discounts in tuition fees for students who want to study degrees like engineering, where we have a shortage of skilled workers”. This type of workforce planning is familiar to her from the managed approach to immigration from outside the EU that she has overseen at the Home Office. Certainly outside the EU, where we may be less able to rely on the free movement of workers to provide us with the skills our economy needs, the case for more directed funding in higher education to grow student numbers in some areas is likely to become stronger.
These are minor issues, perhaps, when set against the impending reality of Brexit and the issues it will raise for universities. Many in the sector will also have personal experience of trying to persuade Theresa May on immigration issues and receiving the cold shoulder. So these will be challenging times for higher education, there is no doubt, but there may be room for some more positive engagement.
Emran Mian is the director of the Social Market Foundation.
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