Funding, Europe and immigration: they were the big three issues for higher education a week ago and remain the big three today. Looming crises have greater staying power than vanquished party leaders.
So what lies in store for universities under this unexpected Tory majority government?
The party’s manifesto kept it brief on higher education. It promised to “ensure the continuing success and stability of the reforms”; to introduce a postgraduate loan system to tackle the erosion of master’s and doctoral study; and to “encourage” universities to offer more two-year degrees.
It said nothing about removing international students from the net migration count (although the new minister for universities and science, Jo Johnson, has previously supported such a move), and has promised an in-out referendum on the European Union.
Traditionally, it’s during the second term that the true essence of a government comes through
Other points focus on two areas championed by former universities minister David Willetts: improving students’ access to data about universities, and putting teaching quality centre stage with something akin to a teaching excellence framework.
University leaders will be relieved that they aren’t facing the uncertainty of a cut to the tuition fee cap, and some will start arguing for an increase straight away. It’s often pointed out that the £9,000 fee is being steadily eroded by inflation, and the Russell Group in particular is concerned that a similar flat-cash approach to the science budget is making the pips squeak.
It remains to be seen whether fees will rise (as Vince Cable predicted they would under Tory plans), but with further cuts to unprotected departments – of which Business, Innovation and Skills is one – expect the lobbying to have started already.
One factor in universities’ favour is that George Osborne is a chancellor who sees a world-class higher education system not only, or even principally, as an educational imperative, but also as an economic one.
Willetts has said previously that the decision to abolish the cap on student numbers was made after Treasury modelling showed that of all the measures being considered for the 2013 Autumn Statement, it had the biggest long-term economic benefit.
As Sir David Bell, a former permanent secretary in the Department for Education and now vice-chancellor of the University of Reading, says in our opinion pages this week, maintaining Osborne’s support will be crucial, and not only for the research-intensives. That Johnson, a friend of the chancellor and former head of the No 10 Policy Unit, is well connected cannot hurt.
Ultimately, what lies ahead depends on what sort of government David Cameron shapes.
Speaking at a seminar organised by Pearson this week, Jonathan Simons, head of education at the thinktank Policy Exchange, drew comparisons with Tony Blair’s re-election in 2001. But for the Iraq War, it’s in that second term that we’d have truly seen what Blair wanted to do, he suggested. “Traditionally, it’s during the second term that the true essence of a government comes through,” Simons said. “If there’s such a thing as ‘Cameronism’, we may see it now.”
The alternative is that with that slim majority and a battle on his hands over Europe, Cameron will have little time or inclination to worry about universities; if he is buffeted by the winds of nationalism that swept such change across the political landscape last Thursday, then stormy seas lie ahead.
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