‘Nasty’ UK election ‘unlikely to address universities’ troubles’

Institutions may be hoping to stay under the radar as parties clash over policy, given danger sector will come under further attack

June 6, 2024
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on a visit to the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield
Source: Getty
Eye of the storm: institutions hope to head off ‘unworkable’ and unhelpful policies, such as those on ‘rip-off degrees’ and student visas

The election campaign is unlikely to provide many answers as to how the next UK government will tackle higher education’s funding crisis, but staying out of the spotlight may prove a blessing after opening salvos indicated the potential for the debate to get “nasty”.

With the Conservative Party intent on winning headlines to turn around its electoral fortunes, and Labour keeping its cards close to its chest, institutions face challenges as they look to influence the priorities of the next government and head off “unworkable” policies.

In an early indication of its combative campaign approach, and with manifestos yet to be published, the Conservatives returned to the “rip-off degree” narrative, pledging to cut one in eight courses and channel the money into apprenticeships instead.

The state of universities’ finances, meanwhile, has lingered in the background of Labour’s campaign, with shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson not ruling out an “unpalatable” tuition fee rise.

Sue Gray, the party’s chief of staff, also reportedly included the issue in a list of potential “crises” it could face early in its administration if it does win the general election, as polls predict.

Jess Lister, associate director at consultancy firm Public First, said Labour was having to both run an election campaign and prepare to be next government.

“There are going to be a bunch of things they will happily talk about publicly, particularly when the manifestos come out [but] I suspect universities won’t feature very highly at all,” she said.

“If there is anything actually pen to paper, it will be on the graduate loan repayment system and tweaking that.

“Aside from that, we are seeing all the signs that they are going to want to keep fairly quiet about [higher education], because universities and tuition fees are a point of weakness for them from the left and the right.”

Despite this caution, she noted that there had been “a real language change recently”, suggesting that Labour has identified university finances as “a big worry point for those first 100 days”.

“They recognise they are going to have to be preparing for a fairly significantly challenge that an institution could go bust if not in the first year, then maybe in the second.”

Migration has continued to feature heavily in both parties’ campaigns, meaning further changes to the graduate visa may be under consideration, just weeks after Rishi Sunak ruled this out.

Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK, said she “remains concerned” that this could be a topic that appears in party manifestos.

“We’ve just been through a very difficult period on that policy front, so we are going to be looking out for that,” she said.

Although light on detail, Labour’s plans to lower legal migration in favour of training UK workers “may well have implications for the recruitment of international students and the future of the graduate route under a Labour government”, said Diana Beech, chief executive of London Higher, which represents universities in the capital.

She said this was more evidence that it was “what the party is not saying about universities rather than what it is saying that raises doubts that Labour would be more favourable to the sector”.

Visa policy could also feature in the Conservative strategy of “trying to win the airwaves every day…even with unworkable policies”, said Ms Lister, alongside other touchpoint issues such as free speech on campus and “woke” students in a campaign that “has the potential to become quite nasty”.

“They are in loss-mitigation mode, and all of this is aimed at winning back Reform voters,” she said, referring to the right-wing party that was co-founded by Nigel Farage and has been threatening to take votes from the Tories. “That is a risk for higher education in particular as there is a danger it will become the point of attack”.

Ms Stern said it was important that the sector did not “overreact” and accepted that in an election campaign there is “a lot of bold rhetoric being used by both parties”.

But, she said, when policies are misleading – such as Conservative claims that one in eight degrees is low quality – they should be challenged with data.

Ms Lister said the nature of the short sharp campaign meant that, for universities, staying under the radar was a “safe bet”.

“The only caveat is if you are not a feature of the campaign, it is harder to become a feature of government,” she added.

“The risk for universities – and I think this has been evident for a while, especially on the education side – is that they are a low priority for politicians and the public.

“Once the election is over, the sector will be in the same position it is in now of not really having the friends and allies in place to get the policy changes it needs to get back on more of a stable footing.”


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Reader's comments (1)

The election campaign so far has provided few answers to any problems. A string of wild ideas from Sunak and very little except continued bleats of "change" from Starmer... Tuesday's "debate" was particulary dire, with Sunak and Starmer far more interested in slagging each other off than troubling to inform the electorate of what either would actually do if elected.