The Conservative party position on higher education is largely a continuation of the status quo. This is to be expected as the Conservatives are currently in government, and their Higher Education and Research Act recently passed parliament. Although, the party has stated it would ‘launch a major review of funding across tertiary education as a whole’, which would provide an opportunity to revise the fees and funding arrangements later in the next parliament.
The Labour Party manifesto offers more radical change, where university education is seen as part of their proposed ‘National Education Service’. Labour points out that university tuition is free in many northern European countries, and acknowledges the average debt on graduation is now £44,000. Labour commits itself to reintroduce maintenance grants and completely abolish tuition fees.
The Labour Party manifesto also claims “there is a real fear that students are being priced out of university education. Last year saw the steepest fall in university applications for 30 years”. The evidence does not support this statement. The number of people going to university, relative to the size of the 18 year-old cohort, is actually increasing. As the Liberal Democratic manifesto more accurately reports “we now have the highest university application rates ever, including from disadvantaged students”
The Green Party has a similar policy to Labour, promising to scrap university tuition fees and fund full student grants. Pledges by political parties to abolish fees are usually come with some hidden conditions attached. For example, in 2005 the Conservatives led by Michael Howard, proposed a similar policy of abolishing undergraduate fees. However, this policy also involved capping the number of student places. This means that although tuition fees are abolished, the total number of undergraduates is reduced. It is not clear what sort of student numbers controls, or guarantees on funding per student, would accompany the Labour and Green Party proposals.
At this election the Liberal Democrats have not promised to abolish fees, but “establish a review of higher education finance in the next Parliament”. This avoids a repeat of the politically costly pledge to abolish fees made in their 2010 manifesto, which they had to abandon when in Coalition with the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats have, however, committed to reinstate maintenance grants for the poorest students. Maintenance grants were replaced completely by maintenance loans in 2016-17.
It is worth noting the current tuition fee loans and maintenance loans are ‘income-contingent loans’. This means the abolition of fees and/or the reintroduction maintenance grants would actually benefit higher earning graduates – as they would no longer have to repay a loan. Low income graduates currently do not pay back any or all of their loans.
It is the Liberal Democrat manifesto that feels the most pro-European. Specifically it seeks to mitigate the effects of Brexit on higher education, pledging to “reverse the damage to universities and academics by changing the country’s course away from a Hard Brexit”
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats will try and retain the UK’s ongoing involvement in the EU’s rolling research programme, currently known as ‘Horizon 2020’, after the UK’s withdrawal. This is important to many academics as the UK does very well in securing money from European funds for big-budget research projects.
Alternatively, the Conservative party has committed to achieving the OECD average for research and development spending at 2.4 per cent of GDP. Depending on how this money was allocated, it may compensate for the possible end of funding from Brussels.
The Conservatives have made international student numbers a manifesto issue, confirming plans to reduce the number of international students studying in the UK. This is aligned to Theresa May’s intention to keep international university students in the official migration figures and ‘bear down on immigration’ in the next parliament.
A reduction in the number of full fee paying international students – because some applicants cannot obtain a visa – will have large implications for the income of many UK universities. It will also be difficult for universities to compensate by taking additional student from other sources. This is because after Brexit, students from the other EU countries will become international students and will have to pay the higher international fees. Moreover, demographic change within the UK – fewer people being born around 18 years ago – means there will be little growth in the home student market.
UKIP and STEM subjects
UKIP remains critical of the massification of undergraduate education, arguing “the politically motivated decision to increase university places has deceived and blighted a generation”. UKIP believes some students would be better off following another route into the workplace than undertaking a degree.
A distinctive feature of the UKIP manifesto is how their policy privileges some subject areas over others, stating: “UKIP will abolish tuition fees for undergraduate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students, provided they work in their discipline and pay tax in the UK for at least five years after they complete their degree”.
This policy position is based on an unsubstantiated argument that only STEM subjects produce graduates with the skills that are good for economic growth. In UKIP’s thinking STEM courses are a worthwhile investment for the taxpayer, while other subject areas are not. However, the manifesto doesn’t specify how they would define the specific courses or the specific jobs within this category to make the policy workable.