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Brighton rock and cough drops: UUK at the party conferences

Mark Condren

Political Affairs Officer
Universities UK

Photo: http://blogsession.co.uk

After a busy summer for higher education policy, the sector was predictably the focus of many conference speeches and fringe events this year. 

The party conference season concludes next week with the SNP conference in Glasgow and while we are not expecting major announcements to the Scottish system, there was enough for the sector to reflect on at the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative party conferences.

The Liberal Democrats were up first with their conference in Bournemouth a fortnight ago. In his first conference speech since his coronation as leader, Vince Cable restated his party's commitment to a full review of higher education funding led by academic and former Cambridge MP David Howarth, with particular consideration of introducing a graduate tax. Direct criticism of current government policy was reserved for the abolition of maintenance grants, which the party has pledged to reintroduce.

Like the Liberal Democrats, there were no substantive announcements on higher education at the noticeably upbeat Labour Party conference in Brighton the following week, with the Frontbench remaining wedded to its policy of the outright abolition of tuition fees.

Of more interest were the many fringe events which were held around the conference. Gordon Marsden and Angela Rayner raced between venues to outline Labour's vision of a National Education Service, conceived as a cradle-to-grave education system which is free at the point of use.

At several fringe events, it was positive that shadow ministers recognised the complementary role of universities in supporting reforms to further education, as were welcome signals that the party would not reintroduce a student number cap. It will be interesting to see how these policies are developed further in the coming months.

The most important announcements of the season, however, took place in Manchester this week at Conservative Party conference. In her keynote speech, which she struggled to deliver due to an ominously timed and aggressive cough, Prime Minister Theresa May announced the freezing of tuition fees in England and the raising of the loan repayment threshold for post-2012 students. She also revealed that the government has launched a 'major review of university funding and student financing.' The Universities Minister, Jo Johnson was questioned by the sector and delegates on the detail of such a review but little more was revealed.

While likely to cause understandable unease within the university sector, Universities UK is keen to engage closely with the government throughout this review to ensure the immense benefits of the current system of higher education funding – both in terms of social mobility and skills training – are recognised. Professor Janet Beer, President of Universities UK, responded​ yesterday to the announcement of a review.

Likely to get lost among the Prime Minister's announcements, the Education Secretary defended the English higher education sector's recent record on social mobility, noting that more students from disadvantaged backgrounds are now attending university. Justine Greening also outlined a new wave of 27 degree apprenticeship projects and a pilot of a student loan reimbursement scheme for new teachers.​

Universities will undoubtedly stay high up the political agenda as parliamentarians return from recess next week, with the government's review of higher education happening in tandem with similar ones overseen by both the Education Committee and the Economic Affairs Committee. UK universities are a global success story with great stories to tell – it is now more vital than ever that the sector gets these messages across.​

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