The Conservatives’ move towards courting non-graduate voters in the UK, partly prompted by Brexit, could drive the next prime minister to prioritise further education and skills above higher education, experts have suggested.
The winner of the Tory leadership race, along with the chancellor they appoint, will determine the government’s response to the Augar review of English post-18 education. But more widely, their attitudes on further and higher education policy may be driven by shifts in electoral strategy.
Ryan Shorthouse, chief executive of the liberal conservative thinktank Bright Blue, said that there was “a split in the Conservative movement between those who feel that too many people go to university” and those who support expansion.
One key recent factor in this, he said, had been the Conservative strategy to court working-class voters in areas that voted to leave the European Union. This strategy was set in motion by Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former adviser, at the 2017 election and sought “to use Brexit as a way of winning over working-class voters”, Mr Shorthouse said.
Many of those voters, or their children, “will be going into FE and apprenticeships”, he added.
“For that reason there is a body of Conservatives who feel that there are too many people going to university, it should be restricted in some way and we should be putting much more investment into FE and apprenticeships,” Mr Shorthouse said.
The attempt to introduce a restriction on the numbers entering universities via a minimum grade threshold for loan access – which some on the Augar panel wanted to recommend, but which was successfully opposed by the pro-expansion universities minister Chris Skidmore – was a skirmish in this Tory “civil war” over higher education expansion.
Another figure who works on centre-right policy development agreed that the new electoral coalition the Conservatives have been seeking to build is increasingly non-metropolitan and increasingly non-graduate, a change of emphasis prompted by Brexit but also by other longer-term shifts.
In light of this, there has been a “decreasing need” for the Tories to appeal to a “graduate vote per se”, but there is a need to “provide more answers in [areas] like reskilling and further education”, he added.
In this context, Theresa May’s move to seek a shift of emphasis from higher education to further and vocational education through the post-18 review looks less like a sudden conversion and more like political strategy. Further education funding has been slashed by Tory and Tory-led administrations since 2010.
Mr Shorthouse said of the leadership contenders: “People like Michael Gove are probably more in that David Willetts [the former universities minister] camp of ‘let’s get more people going to university’ and [he] is probably quite sceptical of the Augar review. Whereas you might see people like Dominic Raab taking the other school of thought [and saying] ‘we need to be focusing much more on FE and apprenticeships’.”
Sajid Javid, the home secretary and leadership contender, has announced a “national skills service” plan as one of his campaign pledges.
If the shift in Tory electoral strategy away from metropolitan graduates and future graduates were to continue under the new leader, the next government may be less likely to prioritise the protection of university funding.
Many academics argue that levels of education – the divide between socially liberal graduates and socially conservative non-graduates – should be understood alongside age as the essential factor determining likelihood of support for Remain or Leave in the UK’s Brexit referendum.
With Labour pursuing a policy to abolish university tuition fees as the Conservatives eye a shift towards prioritising further and vocational education, this divide could feed through into general election strategy – and into education policymaking.
Print headline: Change in Tory strategy likely to shift focus to FE