The immediate response at Universities UK to the general election result was twofold. The first reaction was to wonder what a majority Conservative government might mean in practice, rather than the hung parliament predicted by all the polls. The second involved going back to read the Conservative manifesto in a new light. This will now be the government’s blueprint for the next five years.
Now that the government has set out its programme in the Queen’s Speech – the first from an all-Conservative government in nearly two decades – what are the main points that will impact on universities?
The speech was, as expected, light on measures relating specifically to higher education. However, the impact of new policies on immigration, extremism, the European Union, devolution and the forthcoming spending review will all have substantial indirect impact.
The tight fiscal environment will colour much of the government’s approach over the next five years. It has been estimated that non-protected departments will face cuts of 33 per cent up to 2018-19, if current ring fences continue. This means we must make the case powerfully for government investment in skills and our world-leading research – on which much of the UK’s long-term growth potential depends – to enable the sector to contribute even more to the economy and society.
With some seeing higher education as “awash with cash” and “a sector ripe for cuts”, the sector must work even harder to demonstrate to policymakers, students, parents and others how seriously it has engaged with efficiencies and cost reduction, highlighting the substantial savings already made.
The reforms to be made in the new Immigration Act – introducing a “deport first, appeal later” approach – may make the UK even less attractive for migrants. Although not specifically part of the Queen’s Speech, the Conservative manifesto talked of further restrictions and reforms to the student visa regime, including a review of the highly trusted sponsor status system and “new measures to tackle abuse” and reduce the number of those who overstay student visas. UUK will be monitoring these developments closely and proposing constructive dialogue with the Home Office to seek to address any problems. Our primary position here remains that compliance measures should not impact negatively on legitimate international applicants, students or staff.
The counter-extremism bill will propose new disruption orders to tackle radicalisation and powers to ban extremist groups. Universities have an important role to play in combating violent extremism, but we do not believe that a broad-brush ban on non-violent extremist speakers on campus will be effective or workable, and it may drive extreme views underground. It will be important to safeguard against further measures that erode free speech within the law, and the ability of universities to be places where difficult and controversial ideas can be debated and challenged.
The EU referendum bill provides the clear path towards the planned in/out referendum. With some speculating that it could be held as early as summer 2016, UUK will be working hard to promote the benefits of EU membership. Our Universities for Europe campaign will highlight how EU membership enhances British universities’ positive impact on individuals, the economy and society.
With bills relating to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and a bill on England’s cities and local government – further devolution is high on the agenda. Given this focus on local economic growth, and universities’ track record in working with local enterprise partnerships, the sector will be looking to play a leading role in this area.
In his first major speech since the election, chancellor George Osborne referred to UK universities as the “jewels in the crown of the British economy”. With jobs, improving productivity, economic growth, research, education and skills all playing a prominent role in the government’s agenda, universities have an increasingly central role to play. Notwithstanding the challenges, the truth is that the government simply cannot achieve its objectives without strong universities. Our sector should therefore have every reason to feel confident about the future.
Nicola Dandridge is chief executive of Universities UK.