Crossed party lines at conference

September 29, 1995

A university vice chancellor recently complained that party conferences devote little or no time to higher education. He seemed to believe that all publicity is good publicity.

Conferences have become media events, stage-managed for television and part of the permanent election campaign. For party leaders they may give a reading of opinions but of the diminishing activist party membership, not voters.

Political scientists have found conferences fertile ground for research, even if they disagree about their importance in party policy-making. Yet the attention paid to the conferences by academics is not returned even though higher education is one of the few growth industries. There are more than one million students and, if we add their parents and partners, and people employed directly or indirectly, a constituency of about three million people.

Why then the neglect? Perhaps it is the extent to which higher education is now a matter of cross-party consensus. Most parties' 1992 election manifestos stated a commitment to expansion and safeguarding academic standards. Only the question of student support, especially loans, causes division.

Conferences usually debate broad themes and universities are invariably absorbed under the general heading of education. Successive education ministers have made clear that schools and the concerns of parents are at the top of their agenda and these concerns dominate debate.

In the battle for resources, the claims of the universities - still seen as largely middle-class institutions - are not regarded as a high priority. Higher education remains a "sleeper" as a political issue.

Notice how little coverage is given to the private meetings of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals. How many university teachers even know the name of the present minister of higher education? Over the years the post has been occupied by somebody on his way to higher things (William Waldergrave and Peter Brook) or a ministerial dead-end (Robert Jackson, George Walden or Alan Howarth).

A further reason which reduces the salience of higher education at conferences is the secret method of selecting resolutions for debate. The National Union, which organises the Conservative conference, receives about 1,200 resolutions from constituency associations and affiliated organisations. An agenda sub- committee, which is drawn from National Union officers, a representative of the 1922 Committee of MPs, the party chairman, chief whip and Central Office directors, sift these and select about 20 for debate.

The committee will take account of the popularity of the subject - this year home ownership and taxation have been prominent. It will also look kindly on resolutions which congratulate the Government, show ministers in a good light or provide an opportunity for union bashing. This is all part of the solidarity function of the party conference - the committee will tend to choose resolutions which allow the party's star performers to appear. Denying a major platform role for Michael Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke or Michael Portillo is simply unthinkable.

The selection of 20 resolutions for the Labour conference is made by a conference arrangements committee. Party leaders have often been able to fix the conference agenda, by compositing motions (very rarely done in the Conservative Party), using the three-year rule to exclude certain subjects, and tabling national executive committee motions and amendments. Big public sector unions can influence the choice of topics.

In both the main parties' broad resolutions allow the speakers to address whatever themes they choose. A debate on education has to allow speakers on nursery schools, post-16 education, teacher training, curriculum matters, school discipline, vocational training as well as higher education.

Choosing a specific resolution on higher education excludes much that interests delegates and ministers and the topic is left to fringe meetings.

But some conferences have mattered on occasion. There was strong pressure from the conferences of both major parties in the early 1960s for the expansion of universities.

Such pressure does not always produce sensible outcomes. Labour conferences in the 1970s and early 1980s often passed "wish lists" which caused the leaders to despair and were a gift to the Tory tabloids. Conservative conferences have also suffered. It was their 1987 conference which forced ministers to replace household rates with the disastrous poll tax. Until then ministers had planned to introduce the scheme gradually. Perhaps vice chancellors wishing more publicity might be relieved that the universities do not command too much attention on the floor - and hence on the television - at party conferences.

The author is professor of politics at Nottingham University and will be professor of politics at Liverpool University from January 1 next year.

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