Theresa May has told the people of Britain that a vote for her in the general election will “strengthen my hand and the UK’s negotiating position on Brexit”. If Ms May is to be believed, a sizeable Conservative majority will leave her and her hand bulging with Incredible Hulk-like strength, sending fearful “Eurocrat” Jean-Claude Juncker scuttling beneath the negotiating table to rapidly sign a generous free trade agreement with his own (presumably quivering) hand.
In the “Brexit election” Ms May desires, universities will be way down the electoral agenda – although a Labour pledge to abolish tuition fees may generate some heat.
Even so, given the importance of Brexit and the future immigration regime for the UK’s universities, there is a need for universities to make their voices heard in the election campaign and with the next government.
Are universities, given their status as “pro-Remain” in the eyes of some, now fatally weakened in their ability to influence Ms May’s likely new government? Or can they speak in a language that will gain a hearing from her and her government?
That might mean explaining how universities can deliver growth in areas of the country “left behind” in the UK's transition to a deindustrialised economy – trying to heal wounds inflicted decades ago but freshly exposed by the Brexit vote.
Universities UK, which represents the sector in talks with Whitehall, last week published its list of five higher education “priorities for the next government”.
Number one is “securing an effective post-Brexit settlement for universities”, including the future of UK universities in EU framework programmes for research, from which they currently gain about £1.2 billion a year. The UK should aim to “seek to influence and access the [next] framework programme…provided it maintains its focus on excellence”, UUK says. There has been some debate over whether the EU will opt to continue to fund primarily on the basis of “excellence” in the next framework programme, or shift towards “capacity building” in science in poorer Eastern European nations.
Aside from Brexit, increasing public research funding “further towards a target of 3 per cent of GDP spending” committed to by competitors such as Japan and Australia, up from its current 1.7 per cent, is another of the priorities set out by UUK.
A further priority UUK sets for the government – a crucial one for post-Brexit access to overseas and staff – is creating an “effective immigration system”. An immigration bill is expected quickly after the election if a Conservative government is returned. There should be “robust and reliable data” published “on the number of international students in the UK to identify the extent of overstaying [their visas]”. Here, UUK is attempting to resolve the crux of the crisis on overseas students – the government’s perception that there is a problem with overseas students coming to the UK rests on unreliable data on their entry and exit from the International Passenger Survey, it believes.
UUK may be banging its head against a very old brick wall with its desire to “change the classification of international students so they are not considered long-term migrants for public policy purposes”. Ms May has refused to budge on that as home secretary or prime minister, including over an attempt by the House of Lords to force change with an amendment to the Higher Education and Research Act.
UUK also seeks to alter the substance and tone of government policy with desires for government priorities to “launch an international student growth strategy” and to “communicate a welcoming and consistent message to international students and staff”.
On the question of whether UUK’s pro-Remain stance has weakened its influence in government, Alistair Jarvis, its deputy chief executive, said that “quite the opposite is true".
"Our political engagement has been wider and deeper since the referendum than before," he said. "On the Higher Education and Research Bill, addressing Brexit challenges, considering Brexit opportunities, industrial strategy, immigration, international engagement policy, we're getting plenty of access and a recognition that strong universities are seen by all parties to be a key part of an economically successful, globally engaged, post-Brexit Britain.”
But Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, was sceptical that universities would have much chance to influence the national election debate. While many people believe fees and higher education funding are key electoral issues, “I don’t think it does swing elections” save for “maybe the very odd seat”, he said.
He added that because the election is coming at short notice, a “really well-constructed university lobbying campaign” would be hard to deliver.
But Mr Hillman continued: “Universities have amazing convening power in terms of holding election events, debates…Most political parties if they are invited to go to hustings by their local university are going to do it.”
Universities “should be furiously lobbying the candidates for their seats, of all parties…It could be on Brexit, it could be other things like the importance of the university to that particular town or city”, Mr Hillman said.
In terms of UUK’s priorities, it is that on “supporting universities in their role as anchors for growth in local economies” that may offer the seeds for a more fruitful relationship with a new government.
“Universities and their graduates make an immense contribution to local communities and there is great potential for universities to go further in how they support local businesses, collaborate with employers, reach out to learners, and engage with their communities,” says UUK, calling for “collaborative institutes” between universities, further education colleges and schools with a focus on technical education, and funding to meet “growing student and employer demand for higher-level apprenticeships”.
Andy Westwood, professor of further and higher education at the University of Wolverhampton, said that while the UUK priorities were good, in particular on universities as local anchor institutions, he would be “tempted to alter some of the language – so less ‘how government can help universities’ and more ‘how universities can help government’”, citing “school sponsorship or better access initiatives” and the role of the sector in the industrial strategy.
“If we want to get priority as a sector that matters during Brexit negotiations and return to immigration and student visas at some point”, said Professor Westwood (while adding it was “possibly worth putting that down for a little while for now”), the sector will need “to curry some favour” with Ms May.
He added: “I think it’s definitely helpful to think local-regional and to show some appetite for understanding the Leave vote and motivations among the nearby communities that feel this way.
"There’s also a good chance for a wide range of different universities to play to [Ms May’s] interests for a change. Her first four big campaign visits have been Bolton, Dudley, Cornwall and Ormskirk.”
Perhaps a shift in who speaks for the sector could help change the way it communicates and ensure Ms May’s “strengthened hand” is extended in something a little closer to friendliness.
Time to speak up
A Times Higher Education survey is seeking the views of all UK higher education employees ahead of the upcoming general election. We will use the responses to put together a picture of how the UK university sector feels about the election, and how the workforce intends to vote.