Polishing those pledges before electoral rituals

May 4, 2001

As the parties fine tune their manifestos, Anthony Barker looks at some key issues that will not win the election.

A general election campaign is imminent and "education" will, of course, be one of the grandstand subjects for endless political point-scoring.

But politicians' concerns for the future of higher education will be, as they say, more honoured in the breach if the actual content of campaign speeches, interviews and election broadcasts is the test. The public regards education as an important issue. It was, for example, identified as the third most important topic by a 3,000-strong pre-election sample questioned by the University of Essex's British Election Study. Only the National Health Service and the economy were ahead of it.

Labour, moreover, enters the election perceived as strong on education policy. This large sample showed 44 per cent felt the government had done a good job in this area of public policy since 1997, while per cent saw a bad one. It seems likely that this 17-point credit balance rests on public approval of the child-testing and teacher-inspecting regime that Labour inherited but made its own.

School-level education, not further or higher education, gives the policy sector that third place prominence. It would be surprising if the mass of voters and the media found time for what appears to them as detail suitable only for specialist debate. There is a certain irony in election campaigns entailing carefully drafted party manifestos that are mostly ignored until ministers start pulling out manifesto pledges to claim divine authority for them because they now carry a "mandate".

Labour's manifesto is likely to repeat the party's commitment to increase overall access to higher education - participation in England and Wales is said to be about 35 per cent and about 40 in Scotland. But the transition to mass provision has given rise to a number of inevitable anomalies. Prominent among these is the problem of balance arising from the competing claims of the longer established and the newer universities to join in the overall growth. Letting the generally more prestigious (in social as well as educational terms) universities take in 4 per cent more students has helped create financial crises in several newer universities.

Six universities are apparently about to have their deep financial holes re-filled with Higher Education Funding Council for England money, money drawn away from supporting more successful providers. This raises once again the political question of when some of the weakest will be virtually closed by simple bankruptcy, combined with forcible part-mergers with their neighbours. The key to this particular exercise should be the effective academic credit transfer to another university (with free refreshment or repetition of courses, as needed) of the enrolled students.

Mergers between a few universities would not damage Labour's correct priority of creating more graduates to contribute to an ever-better educated population. In fact, if the weakest universities were to close or be merged, the policy would be strengthened in quality.

A Conservative government began the dramatic expansion of higher education, probably with the United States model broadly in mind. Now the Conservatives' manifesto is likely to say they will make the system more in line with their perception of the US, by "endowing" universities with a huge lump of new public money, to sink or swim as the independent bodies that they are in law, but no other respect. Conservatives say this will free the universities from interference by quangos and ministers alike. But, given the plan's practical feasibility - or lack of it - not a lot of critical attention to it would be worthwhile. Anyone who believes that the Treasury would release this vast sum without major financial controls would believe anything.

Labour's policy of requiring about half of British university students in England and Wales to pay a modest share of their teaching costs is still a novelty. The Liberal Democrats can be expected to say they favour abolishing fees despite the modest role they play in offsetting the considerable overall anti-redistributive (pro-wealthy, anti-poor) impact of higher education spending.

Despite the concessions ushered in in Scotland by the Cubie report and the principle of devolution, one thing is clear. Whoever wins the election, the Treasury now has the principle of fees in place and is unlikely to give it up, any more than it would yield to the relentless pressure to accept further modifications to some further aspects of the system of teaching quality assessment. But to mention the professional, even spiritual, crisis for universities posed by TQA is to go beyond the confines of a mere general election. It is much too important for the wellbeing of our universities to figure in the impending rituals.

Anthony Barker is reader in government at the University of Essex.

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