Higher education and the UK General Election

Polling day looms in the UK. Therefore, I thought I’d step a little away from the teaching and learning content today and share a few reflections about what this election means for UK higher education and consider what the winner of the 4th July will inherit in terms of the university sector. 

I appreciate that much of this will be familiar to those in the UK, but thought this could still be an interesting review for those that might not be as familiar with higher education in this country. 

Experts have been keen to point out that higher education isn’t a doorstep issue in this election, meaning that few voters are making it their key issue, or even one of their top issues, as they weigh their decision at the ballot box. There are a long list of other concerns that seem a lot more immediate for voters across the country. 

However, whether it’s getting much coverage at the moment or not, the next government will have its work cut out for it with universities.

It is no great secret that it’s not a boom time for higher education in the UK. A branch of the main union for academics in the UK, UCU, has compiled a list of the current redundancy programmes in universities across the country – which makes for unpleasant reading. 

Part of this problem is a funding model that is reliant on student tuition fees. Since 2017, these fees have been capped at £9,250, with no room for manoeuvre with any potential inflation. And, as those that keep an eye on the news and on their bank balance will know, that potential for inflation has definitely been met. Whilst universities largely profited on the £9,250 tuition fee in 2017, by late 2023 that same £9,250 meant that they were operating with an average annual loss of £2,500 per home undergraduate student.

To cover this shortfall, universities turned to the international student market. Without the same tuition fee cap for home students, annual international student fees vary from £11,400 – £38,000 for undergraduate courses and £9,000 – £30,000 for postgraduate courses. However, the success that the higher education sector had in recruiting international students has quickly run into a wall of anti-immigrant discourse and practice in the UK, which has now played a part in a downturn of international student numbers. Universities that expanded staff numbers and built new accommodation blocks to cater for international students are now finding themselves in deficit.  

This is why Universities UK have called for an urgent reassessment of the funding model and called for a sustainable approach to university funding

This is a call that has been met with… well, not much of anything, really. 

Of course, a General Election does provide some concrete insight into political parties’ policy positions and so might give us some insight into what is to come. Polling from YouGov shows that there are a lot of issues that voters do care about at this election. The NHS, immigration, the economy, housing, and the environment are all issues that outrank education as voter priorities. It’s of little surprise then that there has been scant attention to the crisis in UK higher education in the run-up to the election.

Part of the limited political attention that has been given to universities during the General Election campaign has been to bash so-called Mickey Mouse degrees – a framing that 1) only sees that the value of a university education through an economic lens and 2) even with that economic lens applied, means avoiding the fact that the 80% of students that do gain financially from going to university are still suffering from the lack of actually helpful policy intervention. 

Unless everyone’s been winding up pollsters, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party looks to be the winner of the General Election. The party’s General Election policy pitch on education education has been described as ‘the vaguest on detail and offered very little the party had not said before’. Across the 136 pages of the Labour Party manifesto, three paragraphs, totalling 119 words, were dedicated to reforming higher education. However, while short, there was some cause for hope here with recognition of the funding crisis and a commitment to the future of UK higher education: ‘The current higher education funding settlement does not work for the taxpayer, universities, staff, or students. Labour will act to create a secure future for higher education and the opportunities it creates across the UK.’

Trying to avoid a reputation as a party of taxation, Labour has made much of its promise to deliver spending goals through increased growth. Whilst the party has, to date, been somewhat vague about how that growth will be driven, the university sector is one area that could boost the economy. Research spend in the UK returns good value for money, with every £1 invested returning around £7-8 in net Gross Value Added

The current party of government, the Conservatives, makes much of shutting down economically underperforming degrees in their manifesto. These courses would be replaced with support for up to 100,000 apprenticeships. Fresh off of strikes and marking boycotts in the previous academic year, there is also a commitment to ‘work with universities to ensure students get the contact hours they are promised and their exams get marked’. One imagines that this wouldn’t be through supporting academics in negotiations with employers to help ensure these strikes don’t occur. 

Times Higher Education have put together a party-by-party breakdown of manifesto commitments concerning higher education, that’s worth a read if you fancy getting a deeper look. However, what’s clear is that the next government will, despite the litany of other pressing issues, have to do something to protect the UK’s higher education sector during its term. 

Whilst higher education is not a frontpage topic in this election, it’s clear that this election will matter significantly to the sector. It might not be an easy or a cheap thing to fix, but the winner of the 4th July election will want to dedicate significant time, attention, and money to the UK universities. 

Despite a year of rough news for UK universities, and the fact that it is heavily raining as I write this in early July, I remain an optimist. Universities matter to our politics and, having spoken to seemingly endless crowds of keen applicants at recent open days, it’s very apparent that politics still matters to those coming to university. So, let’s get ready to see what happens next. 

Photo by Red Dot on Unsplash

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