English universities will soon be “challenged in extreme ways”, as Conservative politicians increasingly see the value in supporting technical and further education over higher education, according to a former No 10 adviser who now leads a centre-right thinktank.
Will Tanner, director of Onward, who was previously a policy adviser to Theresa May in the Home Office and in No 10, said that “every set of polling has shown that technical education is a vote winner”.
If, as expected, Boris Johnson becomes prime minister and “was to do one thing in education, I suspect it would be to redistribute or reorient education funding from universities to further education”, Mr Tanner told a Universities UK conference on 17 July.
There is growing discussion in Whitehall about the balance of spending on different parts of the country’s education system, he said.
“In focus groups, we hear time and time again parents who say they don’t want their children to go to university because it does not deliver value for money and young people who say their university education did not deliver the dream they were promised. That’s a profound change in the environment that the higher education system operates,” Mr Tanner continued. “After two decades of growing public interest and support for investment in higher education, the sector faces some pretty heavy headwinds.”
Polling suggests that what voters mostly want is a sense of belonging, community and security, he said – with support for liberal institutions, city dwelling and democracy falling. “We might see the balance starting to shift…with less choice and freedom in our education systems,” Mr Tanner added.
In recent years, the Conservative Party has become the party of apprenticeships, while the Labour Party is now the party of graduates, Mr Tanner continued, noting that levels of education were the core divide between Remain and Leave voters in the 2016 referendum. There is a political case for the Conservatives to build on that ground to try to win more support in Labour-held Leave-voting areas, he said.
When it comes to the Augar review of English post-18 education, published earlier this year, Mr Tanner predicted, “some aspects will be implemented and some won't”. For example, greater choice and better equivalence between higher, technical and further education, as well as the transferable lifelong learning allowance, would likely get support from the government, he suggested.
Reducing university tuition fees to £7,500 and supplementing the rest with publicly funded teaching grants was less likely to get through, he predicted. “From my conversations with Members of Parliament and even civil servants, there isn’t widespread support for marginally cutting them. However, there is government support for removing the in-study interest rate,” Mr Tanner said.
Universities will need to work to show their value, he said. “There is not a huge amount of sympathy for universities in terms of their funding settlement and government will to some extent want to take some money away and let the sector ‘sort itself out’....It will be up to the sector to respond to that,” he said.
However, Mr Tanner added that there is no reason why universities cannot forge relationships with industry to develop high-quality apprenticeships and technical qualifications.
“There is every opportunity for universities to become those bedrock institutions of local place and community, playing heavily into the politics of belonging,” he said.