Guest leader: It's time to plan for the unknown

Economic woes and political uncertainty mean the sector must take charge in proposing new policies, says Deian Hopkin

August 21, 2008

The silly season has been called off this year. Gordon Brown's holiday in Southwold doesn't quite have the same news appeal as Tony Blair's in Porto Rotondo or Sandy Lane, but in any case there's enough happening to fill every white space: the spectacular collapse of the housing market, the accelerating pace of recession, and the alluring prospect of a leadership contest in the Labour Party (with possible implications for the timing of the next general election).

All of this makes for uncertainty for anyone trying to develop strategic plans in higher education. We may have experienced six different Secretaries of State in a decade, but the sense of continuity has been reasonably strong, and longstanding promises over widening participation and educational investment have remained despite the slow pace of achievement. Now, the combination of economic deterioration and the prospect of significant political change raise the spectre of the turbulence of the early 1980s, rife with lurches in policy and vicious cuts imposed through "financial exigency".

But what do we know about the alternatives to present policy? After some reticence, the Conservatives are beginning to make noises off-stage, notably in a speech in Sheffield last month by David Willetts, Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, which gave a hint of Tory interest in part-time students and the student experience. On fees he was equivocal, echoing his leader's position. Meanwhile, Michael Gove, Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, has spoken eloquently about "an education system which overcomes disadvantage, unlocks talent and unites our country", reflecting his experience as a first-generation university graduate. While the message sounds encouraging, it could mean virtually anything. What is missing so far are clear statements of intention on widening participation and on funding.

A hung Parliament is by no means improbable next time given the vagaries of voting patterns in the nations and regions, so the policies of the smaller parties also need some scrutiny. These are equally difficult to determine. The Liberal Democrats are staying their hand until their 2009 spring conference, while the devolved administrations are still working through the implications of very divergent policies. Wales is running another funding review, while Scotland is toying with the whole structure of the sector.

Of course, given the state of the economy, it is unlikely any party will promise much to higher education. Whoever wins the next general election, the next Comprehensive Spending Review looks bleak. Without talking down the economy, moreover, a downturn may have an impact on the appetite for higher education; in this case, comparisons with the past are not helpful since, during recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, free higher education was an attractive alternative to the dole. Add to this the potential for higher wage costs as a result of a rising retail price index, as well as increases in the pipeline for energy and utility costs, and the task of planning becomes seriously fraught.

In such circumstances, the need for consistency in policy is paramount. It would be good, therefore, to have an open debate to determine what is best for the sector - whoever comes to power. In a policy vacuum, there is an opportunity for higher education to lay out its own stall and address the challenges ahead: improving the life chances of our poorer citizens, enhancing lifelong learning, providing an affordable higher education while maintaining high standards. Challenges indeed, but rather the solutions came from us than someone else.

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