Leader: Still no room on the election manifestoes

January 5, 2001

Education, though not higher education, looks set to top the political agenda in Britain in 2001. The year will almost certainly bring a general election in which schools rather than colleges will be the battleground. The public involvement of former chief inspector Chris Woodhead can be relied on for fireworks. Further education will be an area of many promises. Higher education will again be relegated to the sidelines, since abolishing fees and restoring grants is too expensive for any party with realistic hopes of power to promise.

But there are important issues for higher education. First is the economy. A full recession may be avoided, but economic slowdown seems inevitable. This is not bad for education, since recession is the best recruiting sergeant for school teachers and students. It should offer a chance to improve teacher supply and widen higher education participation.

Success will also require local coordination, and this raises the second big issue: will any party be bold enough to tackle local government? Local government reorganisation is a graveyard of ministerial ambition. Yet, without strong local democratic commitment, it is unlikely that supposedly regional structures such as the new learning and skills councils will do any better than the training and enterprise councils and the Further Education Funding Council in cracking sub-degree level participation and training.

Many issues of concern to higher education are unlikely to feature large in any political campaign but will need to be resolved after the election. Whoever presides over education next autumn will see a new regime at the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Sir Howard Newby, now president of Universities UK, is chief executive designate of Hefce. He is now not well-placed to fight the universities' corner publicly. That role would be better delegated to the chairman for England and president designate Roderick Floud.

The coincidence of a new regime at the largest funding council and a change of ministers in Whitehall - assuming David Blunkett gets the promotion for which he is widely tipped - could provide a useful but fleeting opportunity to sort out unfinished business in the coming year.

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