Tories’ local backing for new universities bucks party rhetoric

As Conservative ministers attack sector expansion, MPs support it locally – offering potential route for sector ‘dialogue’ with party

June 14, 2021

Conservative MPs’ backing for new universities in their areas, despite Tory criticism of expansion at national level, has been seen as affirming that UK higher education must stress its local economic impact if it wants to build a “common dialogue” with the governing party.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has billed himself as “tearing up” Tony Blair’s target – already achieved – for 50 per cent of young people in England to enter higher education and wants to shift resources to further education, with Conservative cultural and economic scepticism about universities combining to create a bleak outlook for the sector’s teaching funding at the next spending review.

Yet at local level, Tory MPs often support the expansion of higher education through the creation of new institutions.

This month brought reports that a panel of civic leaders in Peterborough, including the two local Tory MPs, had selected the creation of a second teaching building for the new Anglia Ruskin University Peterborough, scheduled to open next year, from six potential projects to be its single bid for £20 million in funding from the government’s national Levelling Up Fund.

Paul Bristow, MP for Peterborough, has lobbied the government in support of the university, describing it as bringing “the opportunity to transform the life chances of so many young people”, as well as to “regenerate our city and generate a positivity about Peterborough and our future”.

Meanwhile, the Tory MP for Milton Keynes North, Ben Everitt, has urged the government to help fund the creation of MK:U, a proposed “technical university” led by Cranfield University, seeing this as a potential “free university” along the lines of free schools.

Jesse Norman, Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire and Treasury minister, has been a vocal supporter of the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering (NMITE) in his constituency.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and former adviser to Lord Willetts in his time as a Conservative universities minister, said Mr Bristow’s support for ARU Peterborough was “much more evidence-based than the general scepticism that some MPs have towards new institutions”.

“We can only hope that initiatives like the one in Peterborough gradually convince more people that universities help transform regions,” he added.

Jonathan Simons, head of education practice at the consultancy Public First, which worked with the UPP Foundation on the Civic University Commission, said it has run focus groups on public perceptions of universities that showed that “on the whole, local people like the impact of their university in their town [or] city – particularly as an economic driver, and as something that does public service worker training”.

“MPs like having universities in their area,” he added.

With an intensely problematic spending review looming for the sector, some think that could be central to attempts at bridging political gulfs with the Conservatives.

Sir Chris Husbands, the Sheffield Hallam University vice-chancellor who wrote recently about how universities must respond to a transformed political environment, said: “One of the things which really surprises me in all this is that the national rhetoric [against expanded higher education] is so much at odds with what I understood to be central tenets of Conservatism – the belief in aspiration, in self-improvement. I think…locally this is something MPs get – the impact on cities is really important.”

He added that universities “have got to find a way to get on to the same page as the Conservatives on enough issues to have a common dialogue. We almost certainly won’t do that on culture or heritage, so we need to look elsewhere – and there is a common interest in generating future success.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Anglia Ruskin is a great friend of the Tories