Question time: THE election panel grill the politicians

Higher education figures interrogate the main parties on subjects from policy mistakes to part-time study

April 23, 2015

In this election Q&A, we asked a panel of experts from across higher education to put the questions that need answering to representatives from the four political parties. The person posing the question is referenced in each case, and the full list of panel members can be found at the end of the article.

Is a higher education system of c.150 universities sensible, affordable and sustainable at a time when public expenditure will be squeezed for the foreseeable future?
David Bell

Greg Clark: The government’s reforms have put our higher education system on a sustainable footing – as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development concluded: “The UK is one of the few countries that have figured out a sustainable approach to higher education finance, and the investment pay-off for the individual and taxpayers.”

The benefit of the current system is that more funding goes direct from the Student Loans Company to universities, removing the risk of public expenditure reductions on their budgets or universities being forced to go cap in hand to the Treasury each year just to maintain their current funding.

Liam Byrne: The system underpinning university finances is currently anything but sustainable or affordable. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that three-quarters of graduates will never pay back their debts, which means this government’s reforms have left a debt time bomb under our universities. These loan write-offs are expected to soar to an incredible £20 billion a year by 2044, with the Tories’ system adding £281 billion to national debt by 2031. In contrast, Labour’s fully funded plan to cut fees to £6,000 from September 2016 will mean lower debts for students and will fix university finances for the future.

Sal Brinton: The diversity of institutions we have in the UK meets the diverse needs of our students. As Liberals, we believe that diversity offers choice (to meet varying needs) and stimulates innovation. Autonomy is also important in encouraging independence which in itself encourages such diversity. As autonomous institutions, it is up to individual universities to make decisions on viability and merger. As a party we do not believe that bigger is necessarily better.

Dave Cocozza: A Green government would engage with academics to determine how best to rebalance the sector. This would also mean addressing the seemingly inexorable rise of managerial bureaucracy that has wastefully diverted financial resources from teaching and learning and suffocated the principle of academic self-determination.

The best universities in the world are private US institutions. Don’t you think it’s time that you let a few UK universities see if they can do it better alone?
Amanda Goodall

Cocozza: Those US institutions are also elitist and grotesquely expensive, benefiting from billion-dollar endowments accrued over many decades. We stand for democratisation and believe that education should be open to anyone who has the aptitude and willingness to engage.

Clark: Our universities include many of the best in the world and they are going from strength to strength, as seen in the recent Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2014-15. Universities are independent institutions, not run by ministers, but it is right that they should be backed by public funds for teaching and research.

Brinton: In the latest THE World Reputation Rankings, the universities of Cambridge and Oxford came second and third respectively after Harvard University, while institutions such as University College London and King’s College London have been steadily climbing up the rankings, as have the state-funded institutions of countries such as Singapore, China, Canada and Australia. Independent schools in Britain have tended to perpetuate class divisions: it would be sad to see this mirrored at university level.

With a commitment to £55 billion worth of savings across Whitehall after the next Comprehensive Spending Review, which parts of the higher education budget would you cut?
Martin McQuillan

Clark: One of the benefits of our reforms has been to make universities less dependent on the uncertainty of an annual haggle with the Treasury. That’s why Labour’s policy of lower tuition fees, requiring an additional £3 billion from the Treasury each year, would plunge university finances into uncertainty. As Universities UK has said: “The long-term feasibility of such a promise may be difficult. The policy will make it more challenging to secure the increased public investment in other priorities, such as research, innovation and social mobility.”

Byrne: The fiscal context for the next Parliament will mean tough decisions for all parties. But Labour has a better, fairer and more balanced plan than the Conservatives, whose spending plans show that they would need to make cuts of £70 billion over the next five years. The consequences for skills funding and other public services would be catastrophic. But unlike the Tories we’re not locked into an irresponsible fiscal path that will force us to make major cuts either to science or to skills budgets.

Are students customers? If not, what are they?
David Bell

Brinton: Universities are collegiate institutions and students are part of the “team” whose well-being is important to the achievement of collegiate goals. But there are other stakeholders whose wishes and well-being need to be taken into account. In this respect, the physical environment, the quality of research and teaching and the satisfaction of staff and students all play their part.

Byrne: It’s right that students expect value for money for their education and some students do get a good deal from universities. However, the Higher Education Policy Institute’s Student Academic Experience Survey 2014 shows that only 41 per cent of undergraduates in England think that they are getting good value for money compared with 70 per cent of students in Scotland. And the latest research shows that half of graduates are working in non-graduate jobs. We can’t go on with a system that loads students with debt but doesn’t deliver value for them.

Cocozza: Students are learners and researchers. To suggest that students are customers is to suggest that they can just buy a degree – to use the language of commerce so uncritically is to undermine the purpose of and prospect of learning for anything other than narrow and short-sighted goals. My party and I look to the long term. Students are not customers and teachers are not service providers. We believe that students are individuals, not figures on the balance sheets of global debt financiers. Higher education is essential for the development of our social and cultural structure. Education should be treated as a process and not a product.

Greg Clark, universities, science and cities minister (the Conservative party)

Will the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have to change the terms for existing borrowers of student loans to balance its budget after 2015? Does your party commit to protecting borrowers’ conditions?
Andrew McGettigan

Byrne: Labour has set out a clear, fully funded plan to stop university finances going bust by cutting fees. Changing the terms for existing borrowers is not part of those plans. In contrast, neither coalition party has set out its proposals and the Tories have repeatedly refused to rule out a rise in fees in the next Parliament.

Clark: The strength of our system is that it is robustly sustainable – as the OECD has confirmed – without any changes in terms being needed.

What circumstances would need to arise in the next Parliament for your party to consider raising or removing the cap on university tuition fees?
Martin McQuillan

Byrne: Labour is the only party with a clear, fully funded plan on the table to cut fees in the next Parliament. The Tories have failed to set out any plans of their own and they have repeatedly refused to rule out raising fees yet again. It’s even less clear where the Liberal Democrats stand since the party pledged not to raise fees right before voting to treble them.

Clark: I’m very happy with our policy as it is.

Working lives are getting longer, productivity is poor, most of the 2030 and indeed 2040 UK workforce is already employed. But all parties are prioritising the young in their universityfees/subsidy/admissions policies. Meanwhile, adult education and skills funding is being cut (coalition) or is not promised any growth (Labour). Could you comment on what appears to be an irrational as well as an unfair funding pattern?
Alison Wolf

Byrne: Labour has committed to protect key areas of education spending, including guarantees to protect spending on 16-19 further education, sixth forms and apprenticeships. Because of this decision, we will be able to support the reform of further education colleges into new Institutes of Technical Education with a core purpose to deliver Labour’s Technical Baccalaureate and apprenticeships. Our plans to create more high-quality apprenticeships will also increase employer investment in, and demand for, training for those already in work.

Clark: Adult education and skills make a crucial contribution to the lives of individuals and to our economy. During the past five years, 2 million apprenticeships have been created and in the next Parliament this will be expanded to 3 million.

Brinton: Thanks to the Liberal Democrats in government, we have maintained the Community Learning funds for adult education at £210 million. We have also seen a flowering of adult (post-25) apprenticeships and have emphasised progression to advanced and higher-level apprenticeships. We have, however, seen an erosion of other adult funding and of the numbers of mature students pursuing part-time degrees. The Liberal Democrats have promised to re-examine the issue of loans to such students and we also propose to look again at the idea of the individual learning account as a means of encouraging both the individual and the employer to invest in lifelong learning.

Cocozza: Over the past 10 years, every continuing education department in the UK has been scaled back or closed down - adults wishing to return to education are faced with a situation where short courses and part-time study are considered not to be cost-effective in market terms. Allied to this is the prohibitive cost of studying for those qualifications which universities stipulate as entry requirements. Giving people the chance to be “second chance” learners should be a crucial part of what universities offer to wider society. We would actively encourage adult participation in higher education by supporting student living expenses.

What will your party do to stem the demise of part-time undergraduate study?
Claire Callender

Clark: The reasons for the decline in numbers taking part-time study are complex and varied, with the employment market influencing the decisions of some students whether or not to study part time, as well as the increased opportunity for full-time study. The government is committed to working with the sector to widen the opportunities for part-time study – one example is through expanding degree apprenticeships. In addition, the new loans for postgraduate study will be available to part-time students.

Byrne: Labour has outlined bold plans for an “earn while you learn” alternative to the traditional academic route via technical degrees. We have also set out ambitious plans to put colleges at the heart of the skills system that will mean a generation of learners have much greater flexibility to study either full- or part-time. To do this we will protect further education funding for 16-19-year-olds and our plans will support the reform of further education colleges into new Institutes of Technical Education.

Brinton: We are anxious to see the fall in part-time study for degree level qualifications reversed and for it to become an acknowledged part of the lifelong learning landscape. To encourage such developments we would (a) ensure that part-time students had equivalent pro rata access to the loans system as full-time students as well as to the Access to Learning Fund, which provides discretionary non-repayable grants; (b) encourage the development of a viable credit accumulation and transfer system, including mixing and matching distance- with campus-based learning; and (c) encourage universities to be more community focused, collaborating with local schools and colleges to make resources (expertise, libraries, sports and other campus facilities) more widely available. We would also like to look again at something akin to the individual learning accounts whereby the state matches the contribution of the individual and employer towards training costs.

Liam Byrne, shadow minister for universities, science and skills (the Labour Party)

Do the benefits of the dual support system outweigh the expense of the research excellence framework process?
Philip Moriarty

Byrne: Labour backs the dual support system and believes it is right that the REF is used to ensure that excellent research is supported. But it’s right to continue to listen to universities about the impact of the REF process.

Brinton: Given that on average the research assessment exercise/research excellence framework has been carried out only once every seven years, its cost as a proportion of total Higher Education Funding Council for England research spending during that period is rather less than 2 per cent. This does not seem disproportionate. Most organisations would regard this as a reasonable sum to spend on the evaluation of their operations. The dual support system has been described by many as “the jewel in the crown” of the British research
system and envied by foreign observers. We discard it at our peril.

Clark: Yes. The REF has involved significant effort and commitment but it has produced an evidence base that is powerful in making the case for research as an investment, and in informing funding for excellence wherever it is found.

A huge proportion of UK research was assessed in the REF to be ‘world leading’. As this is obvious verbal grade inflation, when will the government start to distinguish between real Nobel prize kind of research and merely solid research?
Andrew Oswald

Brinton: All REF subject panels now have leading academics from overseas universities to provide the “external examiner” role in their peer review procedures and all indications are that the quality of research outputs from British universities has genuinely been improving. From time to time the system will need revamping – as happened with the shift from the RAE to the REF - but Nobel prizewinning research is often only identified as such 10 or so years after it is published. More worrying is the degree to which the RAE/REF has skewed universities to concentrate on research rather than teaching. It is here that we would like to see some rebalancing.

Cocozza: The REF is skewed, wasteful and illegitimate as a measure of what universities contribute to our society. It also belittles the vocation of teaching by dismissing its contribution to the development of society and individuals, alike, and there is too much game-playing and manipulation by senior university managers. The REF would be scrapped under a Green government, to be replaced by a true peer review-based system, based on respect for the ability of individuals and groups of researchers to define their own research aims and priorities. We would also introduce a public research funding code to protect against commercial bias in research.

Byrne: Unless we get smarter as a nation we’ll get poorer, so it’s vital that excellent research continues to be supported throughout the university system. The REF process is key to ensuring that top-quality research is recognised and supported. But the long-term stability that our research community needs is at risk from shaky university finances.

Clark: I don’t agree. The results of the REF are consistent with our strengthening reputation for world-class research as evidenced by other measures such as citations, international awards and global rankings. Rigorous peer review is a vital underpinning of our well-earned reputation for excellence.

The research councils advise grant applicants that impact should ‘inform the design of your research’. As an academic physicist I have never approached a research problem with impact in mind. Should I look for a new job?
Philip Moriarty

Brinton: The answer to the last question is a very clear “No”. Curiosity-led research is a vital dynamic within the system: but it is not the only dynamic. The UK has traditionally been poor at then pursuing the obvious applications of what we find out. The REF proved to be a surprisingly successful exercise in spite of all prior predictions because it took a proportionate interpretation of impact. Our universities are proving to be very good incubators for innovation. We now need to develop an infrastructure that enables us to transform these new innovative spin-offs to be the Googles and Apples of the future.

Byrne: The accumulation of scientific knowledge is obviously a public good in and of itself, but support for science and innovation is also crucial to building an economy that works for working people. It’s therefore right to support a balance between blue skies and applied research and a Labour government would continue to adhere to the Haldane principle when it comes to research funding. The role of governments should be to set the conditions for scientific success and encourage companies to invest, while public money funds the exploratory research that markets can’t justify and the risky ideas that the market won’t pay for.

Cocozza: We fundamentally believe that the REF focus on “impact” is wrong – it is causing a slow haemorrhaging of able research staff who see greater freedom and opportunity for creative and socially productive work in thinktanks and similar bodies. So please don’t quit your job! The value you bring to higher education is immense. We can fight this together!

Will the science and research ring-fence be maintained after the election and will all subjects be funded at the present differentials?
Martin McQuillan

Brinton: We would maintain the ring-fence because we believe that investment in science and engineering is essential for the future prosperity of this country. It would, however, be foolish to write the differentials in stone. Times and priorities change. Decisions on allocations between research councils would be taken in consultation with the councils themselves. Allocations within the research councils would remain, as now, a matter for the research council and its advisers to work out for themselves.

Byrne: Labour will introduce a long-term funding framework for science to give Britain’s businesses and research base the stability they need. We’ll build on the last Labour government’s successful 10-year approach to science and the framework will also cover spending on innovation and applied research. The strategy will signal our priorities for science and innovation – supporting Britain to take advantage of new technological developments in a digital age and to tackle the major 21st century challenges such as climate change and an ageing society. Unlike the Conservatives, we also won’t put our science base at risk through a reckless approach to Europe.

Clark: Our long-term commitment to science is evident in our record this Parliament - investing £4.6 billion in science and research programmes each year since 2011 and in committing £5.9 billion to science capital from 2016, growing in line with inflation each year for the whole of the next Parliament and beyond to 2021. This is the longest commitment to science capital in decades. Our research strength is based on the breadth of our excellence – of which the humanities and social sciences are a vital part.

Cocozza: This question reflects the futile and outmoded “two cultures” war between the arts and sciences, from which the coalition government has sought to make capital. The consequence has been a divide and rule mentality over disciplinary legitimacy and funding. A Green government would actively seek to nurture the symbiosis of the disciplines by emphasising the principles of creativity, critical thinking, innovation and experiment germane to both.

Dave Cocozza, higher education spokesman for the Green Party

What useful lessons can we learn in England from what the Scottish and Welsh administrations have achieved in higher education?
Danny Dorling

Cocozza: Alex Salmond, the former First Minister of Scotland, declared that “rocks will melt with the sun” before he’d contemplate introducing tuition fees – and we are with him on that. The Scottish administration has set an example in the form of a properly funded education.

Brinton: The Scots have introduced a workable credit-transfer system which helps to bring together higher and further education in a way that England would do well to copy. In Wales, the Liberal Democrats want to see a Student Living Support Grant, because the Welsh government fee arrangements have not seen the substantial increase in poor students that we have seen in England.

Is it more important for universities to prevent terrorism or defend academic freedom, and what are you going to do to address universities’ concerns that the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act will threaten academic freedom by making universities ‘agents of the state’?
Joanna Williams

Brinton: The House of Lords fought a lengthy and valiant battle over the bill and succeeded in amending it so that the universities’ duties to promote freedom of speech are embedded alongside their duties to cooperate with the “Prevent” programme. The new and much amended guidelines have now been issued and are much more acceptable, although the precise wording of the monitoring arrangements for external speakers is still subject to negotiation and will not be finalised until after the election. Ministers also confirmed that if no agreement is reached, the guidance will not be implemented for the higher and further education sectors. The guidance is expected to be published in July.

Clark: The fundamental duty of any government is to ensure that the country is protected and people are safe from acts of terrorism. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, passed with broad support, places a duty on a range of bodies “to have due regard…to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. Most universities and colleges have long recognised their responsibilities in this regard. The act makes explicit reference to the need to ensure freedom of speech and academic freedom.

Byrne: It is right for universities to have a role in preventing radicalisation but the obligations placed on them should be reasonable, proportionate and shouldn’t interfere with academic freedom. That is why Labour argued that the government guidelines on the Prevent agenda were unworkable when they were first produced – particularly the requirement that any outside speaker had to submit an outline of their remarks in advance. A Labour government will ensure that universities continue to be bastions of free speech.

Will you help UK universities compete meaningfully with the US, Canada and Australia in the recruitment of international students by removing post-graduation work restrictions?
Martin McQuillan

Brinton: Yes. We are committed to the separate publication of numbers of student immigrants. We will reinstate post-study work visas for science, technology, engineering and maths graduates who can find graduate-level employment within six months of completing their degree.

Clark: We have record numbers of overseas students entering UK universities this year and record applications for next year. We must all continue to promote the UK as the destination of choice for students around the world. The government recognises the range of benefits that international students bring. This is why there is no cap on the number of international students that can come to study in the UK. Students can stay in the UK after graduation to work in graduate-level employment for three years with possible extension for a further three.

Byrne: International students should be one of our most dynamic drivers of growth, one of our most important exports and cause for celebration for the success they bring to the UK. But because of the regressive immigration policies and rhetoric of this government, our share of the global market is falling. Labour believes we should want more fee-paying international students in the UK and so we will ensure they feel welcome again by taking students out of the net migration target.

Cocozza: A Green government would immediately scrap the points-based system of immigration as it affects the higher education sector. We would also dissolve those punitive measures affecting the free movement of international staff and students. This would include stopping the withdrawal of the post-study work visa, the relaxation of rules affecting students’ ability to seek paid work during their studies and a more sympathetic immigration regime that encourages staff and students to come to the UK.

What will your party do to ensure that alternative providers deliver high-value courses and do not inappropriately exploit their students’ access to student loans?
Claire Callender

Cocozza: We do not believe that education should be a for-profit business. The example of expensive private institutions that barely offer a curriculum while seeking to accrue student tuition fees, suggests that it is not in the public interest for these to be funded – indirectly or otherwise – within a national higher education policy. A Green government would also ensure that all private sector providers in the country are subject to regular scrutiny over the quality of their provision.

Byrne: The Tory-led government has wasted hundreds of millions of pounds by handing over taxpayers’ money to private providers that lacked proper safeguards or controls. In February, the Public Accounts Committee laid out in devastating detail the way ministers completely ignored repeated warnings of the potential for waste and abuse in the system. Labour has been very clear that the sector is running out of time to put its house in order and develop a clear plan to put a stop to this.

Clark: Our reputation for higher education excellence and quality is a huge asset and I am determined that no institution should be allowed to undermine it. That is why we have taken a number of steps to strengthen and improve standards among alternative providers of higher education, such as requiring alternative providers to apply for redesignation every year – including passing a strengthened quality assurance process.

Brinton: We would insist on a really tough financial and academic audit regime which would include publication of recruitment and retention figures and regular inspection by the Quality Assurance Agency or its equivalent.

Baroness Sal Brinton, president of the Liberal Democrats

What is the biggest mistake your party has made in higher education policy in the past 20 years?
Philip Cowley

Brinton: The biggest mistake we made was to promise to abolish tuition fees at a time when the numbers entering higher education meant that the cost of continuing the traditional support regime was unsustainable and unfair. Why should those at the lower end of the income scale who had not benefited from studying for a highly subsidised degree pay taxes to support those who would through life be earning substantially more? There was, and is, logic in the “those who benefit should pay” argument in this case.

Clark: Not removing the student numbers cap earlier – everyone with the ambition and talent should be able to pursue their studies at our excellent universities.

Byrne: For too long all parties have only focused on those that go to university. But there aren’t enough high-quality opportunities for young people who don’t follow the traditional academic route. That’s why Labour’s plan for technical and professional education will enable all young people to achieve degree level skills. We’ve set out an ambitious plan for a new generation of technical degrees – these will be delivered by colleges, universities and employers working together to offer a bold, new “earn while you learn” route. It’s something both young people andbusinesses are crying out for.

Do you, at least in principle, subscribe to the idea that in an ideal economic world the cost of higher education should be borne by the state?
Laurie Taylor

Brinton: No – the ideal world would be one closer to the Dearing “ideal” in which the cost of higher education would be shared between the state, the individual and the employer. At present, the state is making a substantial contribution by heavily subsidising student loans; and the individual is contributing, after graduation, through their income-contingent loan repayments, but industry is contributing little. We would like to see industry making a much greater contribution by offering more sandwich courses and graduate apprenticeships.

Clark: It is reasonable that contributions to the cost of higher education should be made by individuals who benefit, as well as the taxpayer more generally. To restrict the cost to be met entirely by the state would take us back to a time when university places were rationed, and in which poorer taxpayers paid more of the costs of more affluent graduates. We want to see anyone with the ambition and talent to enter higher education to be able to do so.

Cocozza: Yes. Only the Green Party advocates a state-funded education that doesn’t leave students with a lifelong burden of debt. While it pretends neutrality, higher education funding has become an instrument for the ideological manipulation of universities. Successive governments have failed to recognise the societal benefits of higher learning and research. The Green Party would ensure that the proportion of UK public expenditure devoted to higher education is increased from 0.7 per cent to the EU19 average of 1.1 per cent, at the very least.

Byrne: Thanks to this government we have an economy that is too unproductive, too unbalanced and too insecure – all of which means that we are a long way from an ideal world today.
I’m on record as a supporter of free education in principle, but it’s right that Labour has focused on the need to fix the problem in front of us today – university finances, which are currently going bust.

This is an edited selection of the politicians’ answers.

The Times Higher Education election panel:

The politicians responding to our panel’s questions:

  • Greg Clark
    Universities, science and cities minister (the Conservative Party)
  • Liam Byrne
    Shadow minister for universities, science and skills (the Labour Party)
  • Baroness Sal Brinton
    President of the Liberal Democrats
  • Dave Cocozza
    Higher education spokesman for the Green Party

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Reader's comments (1)

Oh dear, Scotland doesn't seem to exist again (apart from one question and two paragraph answers). As for the 'four main parties' - that's not what the rather panicked politicians from Labour and Conservative are saying - the word SNP is now rarely out of their comments. It's a pity that the positive experience of Scotland (and not only in non-fees) was not drawn upon more widely.