UK universities face up to Brexit after Tory election win

Science spending increase, research funding system revamp, targeting of ‘low-quality courses’ among other potential implications from result

December 13, 2019
Boris Johnson
Source: iStock

The certainty that Brexit will happen, a potential reshaping of the research funding system to accompany a big increase in funding and the targeting of “low-quality courses” are among the major implications for universities from the Conservatives’ resounding victory in the UK general election.

With the Tories on track for a majority of above 70 after picking up a string of Leave-voting seats from the Labour Party in the Midlands and North on the back of Boris Johnson’s commitment to “Get Brexit Done”, attention will fall on the party’s manifesto pledges.

Brexit could pose huge challenges on recruitment and international collaboration for UK research and universities.

Meanwhile, on funding, there is also major uncertainty for English universities over the Conservatives’ position. The Augar review’s plans to cut tuition fees to £7,500, which universities fear would bring a big funding cut, have so far failed to win the backing of the Conservative government.

But, more broadly, university funding could be under pressure as the Conservatives look to firm up support from their new electoral support base, which now includes larger numbers of non-graduates from Leave-voting areas. The manifesto’s pledges on higher education show intense scepticism about the value of the sector in its expanded form.

The manifesto avoids a firm commitment on funding and says: “The Augar review made thoughtful recommendations on tuition fee levels, the balance of funding between universities, further education and apprenticeships and adult learning, and we will consider them carefully.”

There are further potential major changes in the manifesto’s commitment to “tackle the problem of grade inflation and low-quality courses, and improve the application and offer system for undergraduate students”. There have been suggestions that targeting “low-quality courses” could mean restricting loan access on courses judged to be underperforming on graduate earnings, or making universities share in the cost of lower loan repayment rates. The idea has also been described as a “backdoor cap on student numbers”.

The Tory manifesto also pledges to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities and continue to focus on raising standards”. Controversies over free speech in universities have become a rallying point for sections of the right, as they have done in the US.

On UK science, the manifesto reiterates that the Conservatives would introduce “the fastest ever increase in domestic public [research and development] spending, including in basic science research to meet our target of 2.4 per cent of [gross domestic product] being spent on R&D across the economy”.

The manifesto repeats a previous commitment, driven by the prime minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings, that “some of this new spending will go to a new agency for high-risk, high-payoff research, at arm’s length from government”, as well as referencing another of his goals, to “reform the science funding system to cut the time wasted by scientists filling in forms”.

The battle between an industrial strategy approach to science funding and Mr Cummings’ approach could be one of the key tensions in this policy area.

Universities will also want greater clarity from the Conservatives on the question of whether the UK will join Horizon Europe, the European Union’s research programme, as an associate member after Brexit. The manifesto appears to stop short of an outright commitment on this, saying only that the UK will “continue to collaborate” with the EU on science, “including Horizon”.

In the election, universities minister Chris Skidmore comfortably retained his Kingswood seat but Gordon Marsden, his Labour shadow, was defeated by the Conservatives in Blackpool South. Education secretary Gavin Williamson and his Labour opposite number Angela Rayner both retained their seats, but there was disappointment for former universities minister Sam Gyimah, who failed to win Kensington after switching from the Tories to the Liberal Democrats.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com


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