After ministerial reshuffles by the three main parties and with 18 months to go before a general election, what now for the policy prospects of higher education?
David Willetts, the universities and science minister, appears poised to achieve the unique distinction of serving in his post for the entire lifetime of a parliament. Incumbents are normally notoriously short-lived in the role, as it tends to be a busy staging post, up or down, on the ministerial escalator. Not since Lord Sainsbury served as science minister from 1998 to 2006 in consecutive Blair cabinets has one person held the brief for so long. David Sainsbury however did not hold the universities portfolio at the same time. The extent to which the coalition’s reforms have been successfully embedded within universities and colleges is surely related to Willetts’s longevity.
This has as much to do with the nature of coalition politics as it does with the quality of the job Willetts has been doing. Unlike his predecessors in the role the possible paths to promotion within the cabinet are blocked either by Liberal Democrat ministers or by Conservative ministers who are much further to the right of the party than Willetts. As not a full member but attending cabinet meetings, it would seem that Willetts’s political career has reached its natural limit in this parliament. It is unlikely that a future Conservative majority government would extend his tenure: he would either be handed a different role in government or find himself on the wrong side of a newly invigorated parliamentary party that has drifted further to the right.
With little prospect of agreeing legislation on higher education within the coalition or finding the parliamentary time for its passage, stakeholder management will characterise the remaining months of Willetts’ tenure. New policy initiatives are unlikely now that his special adviser on higher education, Nick Hillman, has announced that he will leave to become director of the Higher Education Policy Institute in January. Instead expect to see the minister popping up regularly to speak to mission groups and lobbyists of all colours as he attends to securing the legacy of his reforms.
On the other side of the benches Shabana Mahmood has moved from the higher education brief to the Treasury team (a promotion of sorts), while Liam Byrne has moved from work and pensions into the role of spokesperson for universities, science, and skills (widely seen as a demotion). There are several ways to read this scenario but the most plausible one is that of low politics. Simply, Ed Miliband did not want Byrne attending the shadow cabinet. The universities and science portfolio is one of the few substantial non-cabinet posts that would allow the demoted minister to retain his dignity as he descends the greasy pole. Byrne would have faced the choice of whether to accept the offer of the brief or to join the backbenches for the first time since 2005. Having decided to take the option, he took with him his backroom staff. Labour now has a whole new higher education team that has crossed over from another brief and the best part of a year to formulate the policies that it will take into the next general election
The current Labour Party policy is framed by a comment made in 2011 by its leader, Ed Miliband, to reduce the graduate contribution of tuition fees to £6,000. This came with the caveat that this is what the party would do if they were in government now and not necessarily what would happen after the election. On the one hand, this policy is difficult to change since it came as an announcement from the leader of the party. On the other hand, the financial and political climate of 2015 will be very different to that of 2011. Higher education will have slipped down the policy and media agenda, while Labour has committed to coalition spending plans for the first 12 months of the parliament in advance of a zero-based spending review. In that context, it is likely that the party will look to signal a policy change over tuition fees.
The most likely scenario is to accept £9,000 annual fees but reject the prospect of raising the cap or allowing fees to rise with inflation. This will be characterized as a policy U-turn (one of many that the party is currently making as it approaches the election) and the history of dealing with bad news on tuition fees suggests that it is likely to be made sooner rather than later. It will fall to Byrne to front the announcement. He will justify it on the grounds of fiscal responsibility while facing obvious taunts from his opposite number that come with the baggage of his infamous note while chief secretary to the Treasury in 2010: “I’m afraid there is no money.” This scenario is a gift to the seemingly untouchable Willetts.
The Labour Party will then face the challenge of attempting to reform the student finance package to make it less leaky and more progressive, with a view to producing more equitable outcomes around access. The manifesto commitments are likely to be suitably vague around this and signal that higher education will not be made a significant issue in the election campaign. How long Byrne would continue to hold the universities and science brief should Labour win the election is open to question. Once more the ministry could be a governmental revolving door.
The Liberal Democrats continue to keep their heads down when it comes to higher education. Their recent party conference saw a motion on the abolition of tuition fees defeated and the adoption of a “credible position”, to use Simon Hughes’ term, to retain present funding arrangements but to have the aspiration to phase out fees in the future. The party has a similarly future conditional policy on nuclear power stations. Hughes in his role as access champion is the closest thing the party currently has to a universities spokesperson (Vince Cable not withstanding). Cable is against abolition but Hughes has suggested that the newly adopted reality principle can be reviewed after the election. Therefore, Liberal Democrat policy on fees is likely to be both similar to the other two main parties and short term. On the other side of the election the party may again be in coalition (at which point expect them to avoid the universities brief once more) or to be in need of a new frontbench spokesperson on universities and science. Many are tipping Julian Huppert for such a role. In one of life’s rich ironies Huppert defeated Nick Hillman to win the Cambridge seat in the 2010 general election. He is instantly recognizable from the infamous photograph of him and Nick Clegg signing the National Union of Students’ solemn pledge on fees. Should he retain his seat in 2015, Huppert (currently the only member of parliament to hold a PhD in science) looks a likely candidate.
Of course events and political opportunism can always derail this consensus between now and the election and universities should not be lulled into imagining that exhaustion on the part of politicians will result in stable times for higher education. As with 2010 and, indeed, 1997, all the big decisions about higher education are really just being postponed until after the election.
Martin McQuillan is a co-Director of the London Graduate School, and Dean of Arts and Social Sciences at Kingston University.
This text first appeared as ‘The 8am Playbook’ on 27.10.13 for HE: policy and markets in higher education, published by ResearchResearch.com. For details on how subscribe to HE visit their website here.