Manifestos focus on teaching, visas, fees and funds

Tories talk of tougher visas and recognising top teaching. Labour alters funding plan for £6K fees. Greens promise to abolish fees

April 16, 2015

The Conservatives have pledged a further toughening of student visa rules in their manifesto, along with an apparent goal to create a “teaching REF”.

Meanwhile, Labour’s manifesto introduced a claim that the party’s policy to lower fees to £6,000 would be part funded by “clamping down on tax avoidance”.

And the Green Party’s manifesto committed to a policy to abolish tuition fees, which it says would cost £8 billion a year in the long run, as well as to cancel student debt, which it costs at £2.2 billion a year.

Of the manifestos published as Times Higher Education went to press, the Tory document, published on 14 April, says that the party would “introduce a framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality”.

David Willetts, the former universities and science minister, is thought to have privately discussed the introduction of a teaching equivalent of the research excellence framework, which could potentially be used to allocate some funding.

Reacting to the manifesto, Mr Willetts told THE that there “needn’t be a single measure” of teaching quality, but the goal should be “improving the data”. He added that “down the track we would see if money then flowed as a result”.

The manifesto also says that the Tories would “ensure that universities deliver the best possible value for money to students” and “require more data” to be available on graduate employment outcomes. This echoes recent government moves that would enable the ranking of institutions on the earnings of their graduates.

Also in the document is a pledge to “keep our ambition of delivering annual net migration in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands”, giving no indication that overseas students would be exempted. It also says that a Tory government would “reform” student visas “with new measures to tackle abuse and reduce the numbers of students overstaying”.

This action would include “clamping down on the number of so-called ‘satellite campuses’ opened in London by universities located elsewhere in the UK, and reviewing the highly trusted sponsor system for student visas”.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, called the Tory manifesto’s wording on overseas students a “big disappointment”. He added: “Yet again, they are portrayed as a problem rather than a benefit to the UK.”

Labour’s manifesto pledges on immigration do not include any net migration target. The party says: “Short-term student visitor visas have dramatically increased, so we will tighten the system to prevent abuse, whilst welcoming overseas university students who bring billions into Britain.”

Labour also says that its £2.7 billion policy to lower fees from £9,000 to £6,000 would be “funded by restricting tax relief on pension contributions for the highest earners and clamping down on tax avoidance”. When the party originally announced the policy in February, it did not mention the tax avoidance measure.

The change appears to be a reaction to chancellor George Osborne’s March Budget, which diverted £600 million of pension tax relief savings that Labour had planned to use to help to lower fees.

Sir David Bell, the University of Reading vice-chancellor and former Department for Education permanent secretary, said that “tax avoidance crackdowns are easy to announce but notoriously difficult in providing a sustained long-term revenue stream”.

He added that “more encouraging” was that Labour “recognises the invaluable contribution made by international students”.

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