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Election 2017: what the manifestos say on higher education

Mark Condren

Political Affairs Officer
Universities UK

​With the publication of a number of 2017 General Election manifestos this week, there is no shortage of debate within the higher education sector about some of the policies proposed. 

This blog will outline the most significant higher education commitments made by the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats. At this time, the SNP's manifesto is yet to be published.

Student support​

Perhaps the policy which has received the most attention and debate in recent days has been Labour's pledge to scrap tuition fees. In response to this, UUK produced a blog about the implications of different approaches to student tuition funding, including abolishing fees altogether.

None of the other major parties have come forward with similar proposals, though the Liberal Democrats have proposed a review of higher education finance in the coming parliament, along with ruling out student loan book privatisations and future changes to repayment conditions.

The Liberal Democrats and Labour are, however, more similar in their commitment to reintroducing maintenance grants for the poorest students – following their replacement by loans from 2016/17 – and reinstating NHS bursaries for student nurses.

After securing overarching reform of higher education regulation in the last parliament, the Conservative Party manifesto makes no proposals for significant regulatory changes to the sector. As part of wider education reforms, though, the Conservatives plan to require universities wishing to charge maximum tuition fees to be involved in academy sponsorship or the founding of free schools. Linked to changes to technical education outlined below, the party has also pledged to conduct a review of tertiary education as a whole to ensure that students get value for money on their courses.

Technical and further education

One aspiration which unites all the major parties is improving further and technical education. The Conservatives have pledged to introduce T-levels and new Institutes for Technology, Labour has vowed to greatly increase investment in a universalised further education system, and the Liberal Democrats want to double the number of businesses hiring apprenticeships and expand higher national qualifications.

While these policies are designed to provide alternative educational routes to universities, it is clear that having a strong higher education sector can complement and support such policies, as noted in UUK's response to the current government's industrial strategy green paper. We are therefore glad that this is acknowledged in some of the manifestos, including by the Conservatives who state that new Institutes for Technology will be backed by local universities.

Brexit

On Brexit, both the Liberal Democrats and Labour are unified in their explicit manifesto pledges to retain access to Horizon 2020 and future EU framework programmes. The Conservatives stop short of saying this, though echo Theresa May's Lancaster House speech by stating that the UK will seek to continue to collaborate with the EU on science and innovation. Access to Erasmus+ is also prioritised by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

UUK has repeatedly called for the government to secure the rights of EU nationals working in universities at the earliest opportunity. The Liberal Democrats, Labour and smaller parties like Plaid Cymru have pledged to do this unilaterally, while the Conservatives have repeated their commitment to only doing this once the rights of UK citizens in other EU member states have been secured.​

Immigration

As expected, the Conservatives have decided to retain their goal of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands, with an explicit statement that overseas students will not be excluded from this target. In contrast, both the Liberal Democrats and Labour have recognised in their manifestos that international students are, and should be treated in public policy as temporary visitors to the UK.

While stating that they 'will always ensure that… Britain's world-class universities can attract international students', a future Conservative government would also introduce tougher student visa requirements, as well as stricter requirements for students wishing to work here once they complete their studies. UUK has initial concerns about these policies, and believes care must be taken to prevent the measures making the UK a less attractive place for international students.

In contrast, the Liberal Democrats would reinstate post-study work visas for STEM graduates, and allow the devolved administrations to sponsor additional visas. The Labour manifesto notes the financial benefits of international students while pledging to 'crack down on fake colleges' in the UK.

Economic growth, science and research

In their manifesto, the Conservative Party has indicated that it will press ahead with the current government's industrial strategy, aimed at boosting productivity and growth across the UK. It is positive that their manifesto recognises the key role which universities have to play in this process. We in particular welcome the announcement of university investment funds, and a commitment to increase research investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, with a longer-term goal of boosting this figure to 3%.

Labour has in their manifesto revealed more about their own industrial strategy which was being consulted on prior to the election. Again, a target to increase spending on R&D to 3% is mentioned – in this case by 2030 – though the role of universities in Labour's proposed industrial strategy is less clear. The Liberal Democrats are slightly less ambitious on science funding – with only an annual inflationary increase guaranteed for the next parliament – though they do talk about promoting regional partnerships between LEPs, local authorities, businesses and universities to boost growth.

Other policies

Each manifesto has a number of other, though by no means insignificant, policies which would affect university students and staff. It is welcome that all major parties recognise the importance of improving mental health services in the UK. The Conservatives specifically identify issues with support for young people with mental health problems, and have committed to publishing a green paper on the subject by the end of 2017.

There are also a number of interesting policies on professional education in the manifestos published this week. This includes a Liberal Democrat commitment to support long-term planning of initial teacher training places and prioritising partnerships between higher education and routes like Teach First, and a Conservative policy to increase the attractiveness of teacher training by offering forgiveness on student loan repayments.

With universities now having a duty to work strategically to tackle violent extremism on campus, it is also significant that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have pledged to scrap  the current Prevent strategy and replace it with a counter-extremism scheme which worksmore effectively with minority communities.

It is clear from the manifestos that, whichever party is in power after 8 June, the university sector will have to work closely with the government on  a range of important areas. UUK will continue to engage with government to ensure that any reforms are effective, and are implemented in such a way which allows the UK university sector to continue to thrive.​

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