Lib Dems seek to sidestep fees trauma with HE review pledge

Party would use review to consider ‘any necessary reforms’, having previously indicated it may favour a graduate tax

November 20, 2019
Liberal Democrats sign

The Liberal Democrat election manifesto attempts to sidestep the party’s past traumas over tuition fees, committing only to a “review of higher education finance to consider any necessary reforms” in England, while pledging to reintroduce maintenance grants.

The manifesto, published on 20 November, confirms the approach indicated by Lib Dem education spokeswoman Layla Moran earlier this year, when she said that it was unlikely the party would finalise its higher education funding policy before the election. Ms Moran told Times Higher Education then that the party was “moving towards” a graduate tax policy.

The manifesto says that a Lib Dem government would “establish a review of higher education finance in the next parliament to consider any necessary reforms in the light of the latest evidence of the impact of the existing financing system on access, participation and quality, and make sure there are no more retrospective raising of rates or selling-off of loans to private companies”.

That pledge is a word-for-word repeat of the 2017 manifesto policy, while the 2015 manifesto also committed to a "review of higher education finance".

A major review of post-18 education, led by Philip Augar, reported to the Conservative government earlier this year, while the previous major review, the Browne review, initiated the trebling of fees after it reported in 2010.

The Lib Dems suffered severe political damage when they entered coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 and broke a pre-election pledge to oppose any fee increases. Instead, then leader Nick Clegg infamously backed the Tories on trebling fees to £9,000.

The manifesto avoids any reference to the phrase “tuition fees”.

The manifesto commits the party to reintroducing maintenance grants “for the poorest students, ensuring that living costs are not a barrier to disadvantaged young people studying at university”. The Conservatives abolished maintenance grants in 2016, switching all such funding to loans.

The Lib Dem manifesto also says that UK universities’ “ability to maintain top-quality research activity, to attract funding and to deliver the best teaching depends on being open and outward looking – which this government’s disastrous approach to Brexit is already damaging. Liberal Democrats will protect our world-leading higher education sector by stopping Brexit, enabling it to continue to rely on international collaboration and being able to attract leading academics from around the world.”

The manifesto offers further pledges to “raise standards in universities by strengthening the Office for Students, to make sure all students receive a high-quality education”, to “require universities to make mental health services accessible to their students, and introduce a Student Mental Health Charter through legislation” and to “ensure that all universities work to widen participation by disadvantaged and underrepresented groups across the sector, prioritising their work with students in schools and colleges, and require every university to be transparent about selection criteria”.

The Lib Dems had already announced a plan for “skills wallets”, which would give every adult “£10,000 to spend on education and training throughout their lives”.

On research and innovation, the manifesto says that the Lib Dems will “increase national spending on research and development to 3 per cent of [gross domestic product]” at “the earliest date possible”, “via an interim target of 2.4 per cent of GDP by no later than 2027”.

It also sets out a goal to “increase the Strength in Places Fund, to boost research and development outside the ‘golden triangle’ of Oxford-Cambridge-London” and to create more Catapult centres to promote research and development.

And there is a pledge to “develop the skilled workforce…by introducing a new two-year visa for students to work after graduation and a major expansion of high-quality apprenticeships including higher apprenticeships, backed up by new sector-led National Colleges.”

Listen: John Morgan wades through the 2019 party manifestos and discusses how the parties’ proposals will affect higher education in our THE podcast

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