Higher education wasn’t going to be an election issue. That’s what everyone said. It wasn’t a vote winner, but could be a vote loser. Politicians would leave well alone.
But Ed Miliband disagreed. Against opposition within his own ranks, Miliband pushed through his plan to cut the tuition fee cap by a third. Higher education was back on the electoral agenda.
Or was it? Fees have certainly been a live issue, and the Conservatives have rewarmed their 2013 announcement about scrapping the cap on student numbers. But what else has been discussed in anything but abstract terms?
This week, we put the questions that matter to the higher education representatives for the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.
With all the manifestos published, our panel explores a wide range of topics, and it’s not just what’s said but also what’s unsaid that is illuminating
The questions are posed by a Times Higher Education election panel with experts from across the key policy areas that are – or should be – under scrutiny in the run-up to 7 May.
Greg Clark, for the Conservatives, makes the case that five years under the Tory-led coalition have left universities in a better place than could have been expected, with a “robustly sustainable” funding model that is admired by other countries.
Liam Byrne, for Labour, sees a system that is fast “going bust” and pitches Miliband’s fees cut not as a financial risk but rather as part of the solution. He also makes clear Labour’s focus on skills, technical education and apprenticeships.
For the Lib Dems, Baroness Sal Brinton is one of the few to admit past errors (that fees pledge), while highlighting her party’s role in supporting lifelong learning and protecting universities’ freedom, including on anti-terror and immigration policy.
Finally, Dave Cocozza, for the Greens, backs a traditional academic view, opposing the metricisation of higher education, fees, punitive immigration policy and privatisation.
With all parties having published their manifestos, our panel pore over the details across a wide range of topics, and it’s not just what’s said but also what’s unsaid that is illuminating.
Take one example: the catastrophic fall in part-time study over the term of the last Parliament, a decline highlighted this week by the new vice-chancellor of the Open University.
Peter Horrocks points out that the number of part-time students has dropped by 37 per cent in the past five years, a figure that equates to “200,000 life opportunities that have been lost…each one a tragedy”.
What will the parties do to stem this demise, asks one of the experts on our election panel?
Clark’s answer is to “work with the sector”, for example on expanding degree apprenticeships; Byrne’s is to focus on technical degrees as an alternative to the “traditional academic route”; while Brinton fleshes out a more detailed plan, incorporating access to loans and grants, a credit accumulation and transfer system, and a matched-funding scheme involving employers.
It’s understandable in the context of a general election campaign that party leaders won’t talk about higher education much beyond tuition fees, with a little more policy detail offered in the manifestos.
But as always, the devil is in the detail. We hope that the questions posed by our election panel will help THE readers to identify where that devil resides – and who is on the side of the angels.