The Conservative manifesto’s plan for a “major review” of tertiary education funding could “generate price competition for the first time ever” across the whole sector, according to one expert in the field.
Alison Wolf, Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King’s College London, who carried out a 2011 review of vocational education for the government, told Times Higher Education “it was about time too” after years of chronic underfunding for further and technical education.
The plans will raise anxiety among some universities that such a review could shift funding away from them, towards further education and new Institutes of Technology. The manifesto reaffirms Theresa May's commitment to creating such institutes, saying they will be "linked to leading universities".
Baroness Wolf said: “I’ve been writing for quite a long time about the complete lack of joined-up-ness, the showering of money on higher education which distorted incentives and meant that FE and technical education were constantly being underfunded. Therefore, naturally enough, people weren’t going into them."
Lady Wolf, who has previously called on government to ensure higher education institutions did not “dominate the whole scene” in tertiary education, added: “If you shifted the money towards the individual having a tertiary entitlement then you would, with luck, generate price competition for the first time ever, because there hasn’t been any of this ever, up until now."
“Universities might have an incentive to develop courses other than full three-year degrees and/or to have properly structured partnerships with local FE colleges. Getting more genuine competition into the system doesn’t necessarily mean taking lots of money out of universities and putting it into technical institutes/FE.”
The manifesto also stated that a Conservative government will meet the current Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average for R&D investment of 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product within 10 years, “with a longer-term goal of 3 per cent” and that it will “increase the number of scientists working in the UK and enable leading scientists from around the world to work here”. The Labour manifesto offers a pledge of 3 per cent of GDP spent on R&D by 2030.
However, there were elements that are likely to cause much consternation within the sector, including a hardline stance on international students that promises to “toughen the visa requirement for students” and keep overseas students in immigration figures and "within scope of the government’s policy to reduce annual net migration".
Carl Lygo, former vice-chancellor of BPP University, said the manifesto’s rhetoric spelled out a “definite change in policy” that “clearly implies a reduction in [international] student numbers”.
He continued: “I think this is the prime minister’s view and I think it’s been forged out of her experience at the Home Office, where she had to crack down on bogus students going into private colleges and also issues with alleged fraud taking place in English language tests. She’s got it almost etched on her mind that she needs to do something about this.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former Conservative parliamentary candidate, said: “Sometimes in the past the Tories have said we can’t remove students from the number cap because we’ll be accused of fiddling the figures, but in a manifesto you can recalibrate the language, you have a blank slate.
“Secondly, the rhetoric is so blunt – it’s a clearer statement than before.”
Mr Hillman added that things “could get a bit bloody” between the sector and the government – if the Conservatives gain power – with the manifesto’s reiteration of a requirement for universities to run schools if they want to charge the highest level of tuition fees.
“The form of words in the manifesto, they don’t leave much room for manoeuvre. They make an explicit link between fees and setting up schools,” he said.
“There’s been an impasse between the sector and the government on sponsoring schools, and the Conservative Party will be hoping that the wording in the manifesto breaks that impasse.”
Meanwhile the Liberal Democrat manifesto pledges to “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”.
The Lib Dems also pledge to reinstate maintenance grants for the poorest and “reinstate quality assurance for universities applying for degree-awarding powers”.
Both the Labour and Lib Dem manifestos contain pledges on aiming to secure access to EU research programmes post-Brexit – a pledge not made overtly in the Conservative manifesto.