Corbyn’s vision for higher education ushers in a new era

The wide appeal of Labour’s fees pledge means free higher education is back on the agenda, amid a shift in the political landscape

June 15, 2017
Protester in Theresa May mask
Source: Reuters

It will not have escaped your notice that the results of the teaching excellence framework are conspicuously absent from the pages ahead.

The postponement of this most controversial of government interventions may seem significant for universities but is, of course, a very minor footnote in the fallout from the general election.

The reality is that TEF is still imminent once the new government gets its house in order (a point reinforced by yet another outing of the pro-TEF arguments in The Times this week, and with Jo Johnson reappointed as universities minister).

Among the many aftershocks of the surprise hung parliament, one of the most jarring was the tight-lipped determination of Theresa May to ignore the fact that a ravine had just opened up beneath her feet, and to carry on regardless.

Announcing her intention to form a government with the DUP, May’s tone-deaf “victory” speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street offered yet more evidence that the prime minister equates bloody-mindedness with strength of character.

Higher education is all too familiar with this trait, having won all the arguments (and the private backing of most of the Cabinet) for a welcoming stance on international students, yet failing to make any impression on May’s intractability.

It’s worth acknowledging that there is a wider trend at play here, with politicians consciously moving away from rationalism in favour of appeals to the lower emotions and prejudices of their electorate. This issue is explored in depth in our features pages this week.

But for all May’s stubbornness, the truth is that everything has changed as a result of the poll seven days ago.

There are many factors at play as far as higher education is concerned. One is Brexit, and the pressure May will come under to adopt a more moderate negotiating position.

The DUP’s stance, as set out in its manifesto, makes more than one reference to the importance of universities, stating as a priority that higher education should “continue to attract international expertise and collaboration”. We analyse what this hastily constructed government may mean for higher education in our news pages this week.

Taking a broader view, it’s also clear that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign connected with young voters in a way that will surely force future campaign strategists to take a more inclusive approach to policymaking and look beyond the vested interests of older generations and the newspapers they read.

I wrote a few weeks ago that this was an election that offered two distinct visions for higher education, and that if the great tuition fees repeal promised by Corbyn proved a damp squib at the ballot box, then it could be off the political menu for good.

Although it is impossible to untangle the motivations of the electorate, it seems pretty clear that fees did help to mobilise the young vote, and probably reached beyond that demographic too.

If you will excuse a taxi driver anecdote, a colleague recounted a conversation with a Somali Uber driver, who said he would be voting for the first time because of the tuition fees pledge (his son was at medical school). A £27,000 gift to your child or grandchild isn’t a bad single issue to get you out of your Uber and into the polling station.

University leaders may worry about a tuition fee-free future – a double whammy of painful Brexit plus the loss of fee income without proper reimbursement from the state would be a disaster.

But to fret excessively about that at this point would be getting ahead of ourselves. Labour lost the election, after all.

What’s clear, though, is that old certainties are no longer certain. And for as long as she lasts, May’s inflexible position on some of higher education’s most pressing concerns might have to change.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Everything has changed 

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