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Anything for universities at the Labour and Conservative conferences?

4 October 2018

Mark Condren

Political Affairs Officer
Universities UK

Politicians, journalists and public affairs staff will no doubt be breathing a collective sigh of relief as yet another conference season draws to an end. Inevitably, debates about the broad direction of Brexit dominated both Labour and Conservative conferences, but there was still enough to keep attendees from higher education occupied.

This may not have been the case on the conference floor, where announcements related to universities were in relatively short supply. A small gift came in the Prime Minister's own speech on Wednesday, in which she praised the UK's 'world-leading universities' as a strength which will allow a Global Britain to succeed following Brexit, in addition to other national qualities like our soft power and talented innovators.

Those looking for an indication of the government's future approach to international staff and students will have to wait a little longer. Echoing the Home Secretary the previous day, Theresa May reserved her comments on immigration to speaking of a post-Brexit system which does not distinguish between EU and non-EU workers, but is based on UK skills needs.

In her own keynote speech, the Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner did confirm the establishment of a lifelong learning commission headed by Shadow Universities Minister Gordon Marsden which was proposed in the party's last general election manifesto. This commission will produce recommendations to inform proposals for Labour's vision of an integrated, cradle-to-grave National Education Service which is free at the point of use.

Both conference halls were otherwise silent on universities; a predictable consequence of where both parties are in developing their thinking on the sector. While the government awaits the conclusion of the review of post-18 education and funding in England, the Labour Party continues to work up its proposals for a National Education Service, including grappling with the technicalities of introducing a system of no tuition fees.

There was, however, no shortage of fringe events focused on universities and students. University funding, widening participation and meeting skills needs were all key topics of interest. While poles apart politically, both Sam Gyimah and Gordon Marsden talked passionately at events about the need to support flexible learning, noting the technological and economic developments which will demand a system which supports workers to learn throughout their lives.

At Conservative conference, Sam Gyimah also spoke, several times, about his concerns around free speech on campus, calling for a culture of debate based around civility and rigour. On funding and student support, the minister was constrained in what he could say in the context of the post-18 review. It is clear that the ongoing work by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) into the financial accounting of student loans will also weigh heavily on the minister's thinking going forward.

During conference, Sam Gyimah also spoke on a panel with Universities UK President Professor Dame Janet Beer on the subject of mental health, reiterating it as one of his key priorities and vowing to 'keep banging the drum' to university leaders until he sees definite progress.

Universities UK hosted two roundtables at each conference, one focusing on immigration and the other on domestic approaches to education and skills training. In addition to parliamentarians, these meetings featured voices from both the education and business sectors. It was welcome to hear support from both ministers and the Labour Frontbench for our world-class university sector, particularly in areas like international students and supporting research and innovation.

As parliament returns next week, we will continue to work with all parties to ensure universities are supported in improving social mobility, driving economic growth and meeting skills needs at this crucial time for the sector.

The coming year promises to be a relentless one for the sector, with Brexit, immigration and funding issues all coming to a head. In these unpredictable times, one thing is almost certain: universities will still be high up the political agenda when party conference season kicks off again next year.

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