What a surprise general election could mean for HE

John Morgan looks at how the HE Bill's future, the impact of Brexit and Labour's fee plans are all election issues for universities

April 18, 2017

Theresa May’s plan to hold a general election on 8 June raises implications for universities in terms of whether the Higher Education and Research Bill can continue, the vote’s status as the "Brexit election", and the expected emergence of Labour’s plan to scrap tuition fees.

May’s spokesman has confirmed that – if the vote to call the election is passed by the two-thirds majority required under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act – Parliament will be dissolved 25 working days before the election, which means dissolution on 3 May.

Prior to today’s announcement, the HE Bill had been expected to return to the House of Commons for consideration of amendments at around 25 April. That would leave the government with little more than a week to rid the bill of troublesome amendments inserted by the Lords and have it passed in the “wash up” – in which all legislation currently in play is dealt with quickly before a dissolution.

Key amendments passed by the Lords include one defining the purposes of universities (aimed at limiting government plans to bring in new private and for-profit providers), preventing the government from using the new teaching excellence framework to set universities’ tuition fees, taking international students out of net migration figures and restricting the government’s plans to open up degree awarding powers and university title to new providers.

The election timetable raises major questions about the bill’s future. At the very least, government whips will have to move deftly and swiftly if it is to pass before Parliament is dissolved – and that could require dropping some of the elements most fiercely opposed by peers.

If the legislation or key sections of it were abandoned, its supporters would lament a lost chance to make the English sector’s regulation fit the new, more marketised regime that has followed the trebling of fees and to open the sector to competition from new providers. The bill’s critics would celebrate the exact same.

But there is the potential for the bill to be carried forward to the next session of Parliament and picked up after the election.

In terms of the substance of the election debate, universities may see a chance to get a hearing for their Brexit priorities: staying in EU research programmes (if indeed that is the goal for sector leaders) and securing the most open immigration regime possible for students and researchers coming from Europe and the rest of the world.

Inevitably, those are not going to be top priorities in the election campaign in general. But for the Liberal Democrats, pushing hard for a revival in urban seats heavy with university staff and students after their tuition fees trauma, they could well be higher up the agenda.

To give one example, Cambridge, taken by Labour with a mere 599 majority in 2015, looks vulnerable to the Lib Dems, where University of Cambridge researcher Julian Huppert is seeking to return as an MP.

The Lib Dems will seek to bill themselves as the party of Remain and win over urban, cosmopolitan sections of the Labour vote disaffected by the party’s agonised position on Brexit. There may be some mileage for the Lib Dems in making an issue out of EU research and the future immigration regime for students and academics, given that such voters care about these matters.

According to a THE survey ahead of the 2015 general election, 46 per cent of university staff were planning to vote Labour, with just 9 per cent backing the Lib Dems (when the party's fees nightmare was still feverish). Ahead of the EU referendum, 88.5 per cent of respondents to another THE survey were planning to vote Remain. The Lib Dems may scent some valuable support in university seats there if Labour loses its hold on those votes following the EU referendum.

Labour will need to rush out its plan to scrap tuition fees in readiness for the election campaign, if the leadership can push it through against likely opposition from some MPs.

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, recently told me that scrapping fees is a “majority position” in Labour after Jeremy Corbyn’s two leadership victories and “therefore will become policy”.

That hardened the stance Corbyn had previously taken. In 2016, he told me that while scrapping fees, funding higher education by public spending and reintroducing maintenance grants – which he costed at £10 billion a year in his first leadership campaign – remained his goal it would take “serious debate within the party to achieve”.

That “serious debate” may have to be an accelerated debate now.

Both McDonnell and Corbyn believe that the policy to abolish fees was critical to the latter’s leadership victories. They no doubt believe it would be a similarly popular election policy.

Although Labour’s current polling numbers suggest the debate over its higher education funding policy would be academic, the argument could be another significant flashpoint between Corbyn and his opponents as well as having some impact on the broader debate around how we fund higher education.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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