Welcome to Toryland
As British pollsters take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror, the nation is presented with what only a few months ago seemed to be the least likely outcome of this general election, a majority Conservative government. Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage have all resigned as party leaders and the Scottish National Party has swept the board north of the border. In the hours after the polls closed, the phrase “political earthquake” was frequently used to describe this new reality. However what will actually change as a result of Thursday’s election result?
On the face of it the Conservative majority looks, by historic standards, to be relatively thin at just 12 seats. However when you remove the elected speakers on both sides and Sinn Fein MPs who will not take up their seats, the true Conservative majority is 16. The fixed-term parliament act also offers generous terms to the longevity of incumbent administrations, which lends robustness to that majority. If David Cameron does not have to look for support elsewhere in the Commons, what will his majority government set out to do and how will it affect universities?
Having seen off the threat of the UK Independence Party, the Conservatives will now make good on their pre-election pledge for an in-out referendum on membership of the EU by 2017. The manifesto commitment was for a set of re-negotiated terms to be presented in a plebiscite as the basis for continued membership or exit. Mr Cameron and his newly re-appointed chancellor, George Osborne, may well believe that continued membership of the EU would best serve the economic and strategic interests of the UK, but most of his parliamentary party do not share that view. The balance of power in this parliament lies with the Tory backbenches.
Thursday’s election result may yet prove to be the worst possible outcome for the Conservative leadership. They will find it much more difficult to manage parliamentary business through a vote-by-vote negotiation with their own emboldened backbenchers than through a written coalition agreement with pragmatic Liberal Democrat partners. The referendum is designed to put the question of Europe to bed, one way or another, for a generation. However, as the Scottish independence referendum demonstrated, such polls can give rise to acrimonious campaigns with unsettled outcomes. The demands of the Tory backwoodsmen in advance of the poll will be uncompromising, while the result, either way, may yet split the Conservative party. This prospect brings full circle a debate postponed from the last time the Tories found themselves in a similar position during the 1992 parliament under John Major.
Universities UK has already begun to turn up the volume on the benefits of EU membership, including the importance to British higher education of framework funding and labour mobility. It will be the responsibility of university leaders to make the case publically for continued EU membership. It will be a debate that, even if ultimately won by pro-Europeans, is likely to see a continued cheapening of the national conversation on the topic of immigration and will produce an atmosphere inhospitable to the international outlook of globally connected knowledge producers in our universities. Theresa May has been re-appointed as home secretary and she will continue to turn the screws on international student visas and post-graduation work. It will be interesting to see if the high stakes in this policy area are something that might unite universities in opposition to the new government.
Although some aspects of Conservative higher education policy will continue unchanged (the undergraduate number cap will be removed, there will be a postgraduate loan scheme), the party’s ambitions in this area will now be unfettered by a Liberal Democrat secretary of state or a wet Tory minister popular with vice-chancellors. The Treasury has set the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills the target in this parliament of reducing losses on student loans from 45 per cent to 36 per cent. Unless graduate employment rates show a marked improvement, this implies either a freeze on the maximum tuition fee to reduce liabilities or changes to conditions for borrowers. The new government might choose to fix the repayment threshold of £21,000 rather than increase it in line with inflation, as promised in the last parliament, when that figure comes up for review in 2017. There will be pressure from some universities by that time to increase the fees cap, so it is graduates who are more likely to come off the worst.
The now departed Vince Cable blocked the sale of the student loan book while he was business secretary. The new Conservative government will press ahead with this asset disposal. However it will need to make the possible yields from the sale of leaky loans appealing to investors. It can choose to do this in two ways: either by subsidizing the sale with taxpayers’ money to ensure profits for purchasers; or by introducing more disadvantageous terms for graduate borrowers. Perhaps some combination of both is the most likely scenario. Annual sales of tranches of the loan book would follow in this parliament. The general direction of travel for higher education will be a student-finance system based upon loans and their securitisation. At some point readers might expect a return of the proposition that universities should be encouraged to buy into the human capital potential of their graduates.
With an acceleration of the financialisation of higher education will come mechanisms to justify the public borrowing outlay. Two-year degrees will be a priority and the reporting of employability data will be beefed up. Also the Conservatives should make good on a pledge “to introduce a framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality”. A teaching version of the Research Excellence Framework would be about as welcome as an anthrax postcard in a sorting office. It could be introduced as part of a long awaited higher education bill that also regulates the facts on the grounds of private providers established in the last parliament.
The location of the universities and science brief in Whitehall and the identity of the new minister have yet to be revealed. This will matter enormously ahead of the spending review, which promises £55 billion of public spending cuts. There was much talk in the last parliament of higher education returning to the Department of Education. This might enable an integration of secondary, further and higher education policy objectives. However it could potentially be bad news for universities if it meant that the higher education budget were squeezed to protect spending on schools. An alternative might be a rationalization of the department and the Department for Media, Culture and Sport or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Night watchman Greg Clark will surely move on from his pre-election portfolio. The identity of the universities and science minister might be less important than his or her longevity. Majority governments tend to lead to short-term office holders in junior ministerial roles. Universities can expect to see a revolving door of aspirational and demoted ministers even if the general policy framework remains intact.
The inequalities and inconsistencies of devolved arrangements for higher education across the UK are likely to be exacerbated in this parliament. It is hard to see how a block of 56 SNP MPs, with Oystercards and expense accounts at Westminster, will forward the cause of progressive politics in Scotland when the government of the day is not obliged to deal with them. An offer of fiscal autonomy within a currency union might not be that appealing a prospect to vice-chancellors north of the Tweed who have already seen cuts to their budgets as a consequence of the results of the Research Excellence Framework. Undoubtedly one of the causes of the SNP surge was the abject failure of Westminster politicians to follow through on their extravagantly made pledges during the independence referendum. As public spending cuts bite in this parliament, driven by an ideologically virile Conservative majority government, there will be considerable pressure within SNP ranks to run on a second referendum platform in the 2016 Holyrood elections. At very least they could ask for a second vote to be triggered, should the EU referendum result in a Brexit.
In the meanwhile, Labour will spend the first years of the parliament in introspection, providing little in the way of effective opposition to the Conservatives’ more radical “get them out of the way early” cuts and reforms. The £6,000 tuition fees policy, which caused such friction between Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, is now dead. It may remain on the books for a bit, while someone thinks of what to replace it with, but it is unlikely to return as a pillar of Labour higher education policy. A new leader will set their own agenda for universities. If it is to be Chuka Umunna, most recently the shadow business secretary, he was never keen on the idea in the first place.
This unexpected new world of a Conservative majority will be the same but different for higher education. It will features all of the things that were so loved under the coalition—marketisation, financialisation, privatisation—only faster and longer, with a few new interventionist policies to add to the mix spiced up by an increasingly toxic public discourse on immigration and Europe. University leaders will hope that the debt bubble building up in the public finances will last long enough to spare higher education funding during the next cycle. The remnants of access funding and student grants will go, the market of student choice will mature, the transfer of the commonwealth of universities to private profit will continue and an English higher education institution may yet go to the wall. Universities, if not students, found the funding environment of the past five years relatively benign. The next parliament is unlikely to be so generous and no doubt the mission groups will find ways to justify their claims on the shrinking slices of an ever-decreasing pie. However compared to some public services and sections of society, universities and academics will probably be sheltered in the next Toryland. The reasons to have wished it otherwise were never really about higher education.
Martin McQuillan is pro vice-chancellor of research at Kingston University.
This text first appeared as ‘Welcome to Toryland’, for ‘The 8am Playbook on 10.05.15 for ‘HE: policy and markets in higher education’, published by ResearchResearch.com. For details on how to subscribe to HE and the Playbook for free visit their website here.