Academics urged to fill policy void at heart of new UK government

Scholars see opportunities to influence Labour’s thinking on universities and beyond as power of thinktanks wanes

July 8, 2024
Two people looking inside holes in an immersive art installation in London, UK_to illustrate Academics urged to fill policy void at heart of new UK government
Source: Guy Bell/Alamy Live News
Holes to fill as thinktanks’ influence wanes scholars see a chance to shape Labour’s thinking on higher education

Academics can help fill policy voids at the centre of the UK’s incoming Labour government, analysts have said, with experts set to come back to the fore both in and out of the new parliament.

Sir Keir Starmer’s party has returned to power for the first time in 14 years but has given scant detail on its plans for higher education and other sectors, presenting “enormous opportunities” for scholars to shape the agenda, said Natascha Engel, a former Labour MP and deputy speaker of the House of Commons.  

“The campaign and the manifesto were big on ideas but left the detail for after the election, so this period between manifesto and King’s Speech is really good to engage on the first steps – and helping put flesh on the bones of what Labour is wanting to achieve,” said Ms Engel, who now runs the cross-party Palace Yard thinktank.

Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, agreed there was a “vacuum” in Labour policy as it enters No 10 “that will need to be quickly tackled”, which he said was “an opportunity for universities as well as a potential threat”.

Much of the day-to-day influence on policymaking will be left to politicians’ advisers. Bridget Phillipson, the new education secretary, is known to have a stable team around her who will follow her into the Department for Education.

On the legislative side, parliament will also see the introduction of several MPs who have previously worked in universities, while in the House of Lords, Labour life peer Baron Wood of Anfield, a University of Oxford academic, and Baroness Morgan of Huyton, master of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, both have extensive higher education experience.

Formal positions may have to be filled, such as potentially a new chair of the Office for Students, currently held by the Conservative peer Lord Wharton, while university figures could well be invited in to serve on an advisory panel for a potential review of the system.

Outside of the formal politics, much of the influence over policy ideas under previous governments has been held by thinktanks, but some believe this might change under Labour.

“While thinktanks have played a big part in influencing and shaping policy under the Blair, Brown and subsequent Conservative governments, the advent of the Starmer years may well bring a new dawn for the way policy is considered and made across the UK,” said Diana Beech, chief executive of London Higher, which represents universities in the capital.

“Unlike his predecessors, Sir Keir Starmer comes to power with no strong links to any political thinktank, so universities and academics have a golden opportunity to place themselves in the service of trusted and impartial policy advice under the new parliament as the influence of traditional thinktanks wanes.”

She said it was “unlikely that the preferred thinktanks of the past government can reinvent themselves so quickly to win the trust of new Labour policymakers” and this meant that university-based policy institutes “should move quickly to fill the void and bring an end to an era of scepticism over expert advice and evidence-led opinion”.

Labour does have its own thinktanks, most notably Labour Together, which was run before the election by Josh Simons, a former research fellow at Harvard University and author of a book on AI and democracy, who has been elected as MP for Makerfield.

Also involved in Labour Together are University of Cambridge political economist Helen Thompson, UCL professor Sir Geoff Mulgan, Anand Menon of King’s College London and the University of Manchester political scientist Rob Ford, who all serve on its advisory board.

Academia is also home to many figures who were influential the last time Labour was in power, who may well have a role to play in the new government.

Nick Pearce, now professor of public policy at the University of Bath, was head of the No 10 policy unit between 2008 and 2010 and then ran the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

And Andy Westwood was a special adviser to Labour universities ministers before becoming professor of government practice at the University of Manchester.

He did not disclose whether he would play a role in the new administration but agreed it was a moment in which policy-focused academics and sector groups could gain influence.

“I suspect the policymaking environment – especially over the period before a three-year spending review – will be ripe for ideas and influence,” said Professor Westwood.

“Labour will need to do a lot of thinking about funding, regulation and most crucially of all, how universities help to drive economic growth. So, it’s likely to be a period where those with good ideas will be welcome, and that has to be a real opportunity for the sector.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Right-wing of the LP - who'd have thought? Didn't we have enough of the influence of Giddens?