December election puts UK policy progress on hold

Augar response, TEF direction and research funding plans could all remain at a red light while UK goes to the polls

November 1, 2019
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News that a general election will be held in December may have finally given some people optimism that the great cloud hanging over British politics may at least be on the move, if not yet about to break up.

But, for higher education, an imminent poll now throws even greater uncertainty over a series of policies that have been sitting in the Westminster inbox for what already seems like an eternity.

Chief among them is perhaps the government’s response to this year’s Augar review of post-18 education in England, which recommended cutting tuition fees for undergraduates to £7,500, among a host of other measures. A response to that has been promised “before the end of the winter”.

Although originally set up under former prime minister Theresa May – who was keen on a fees policy to rival Labour’s offer of abolishing fees – it has seemed unlikely that a Boris Johnson government would accept the main tenets of the review. Instead, the signals coming from Whitehall have suggested a doubling-down on policies designed to focus on “value for money” in higher education.

It could mean that on fees at least, an election again offers distinct paths like in 2017: an end to fees or the status quo. But, this time, resurgent prospects for the Liberal Democrats add another uncertain element to any post-election direction, given that they may play a key role in a further hung Parliament.

In addition, one of the likely key elements of Tory policy – the teaching excellence framework – is itself in some kind of limbo.

Last month, the education secretary Gavin Williamson told England’s university regulator to press ahead with a subject-level TEF despite widespread concerns and with a major review of the TEF by former vice-chancellor Dame Shirley Pearce still awaiting publication.

Of course, these domestic policy uncertainties don’t even have to worry about the big elephant in the room – Brexit – although arguably their delay has everything to do with it.

But Brexit – and its implications for future staff and student recruitment as well as research funding – in itself is a major headache for the sector that is unlikely to be immediately cured by the election result.

Yet another unpublished review by a former vice-chancellor plays a key role here: Sir Adrian Smith’s consideration of research funding in a world where the UK may not be part of European Union programmes.

It also ties in to Tory pledges on research spending that may resurface in the election campaign and the noises that have been coming from No 10 about a change in direction on how some science is funded.

All eyes will be on the party manifestos to see if they shed more light on the potential directions for higher education.

But Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, pointed out that who wins the election may not be what causes the greatest trepidation for universities as much as whether the result is “clean cut or not”.

“If we have another hung Parliament I don’t think it will necessarily resolve anything. It doesn’t resolve Brexit and [that] then continues to be a block on every other policy area,” he said.

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