What does the general election mean for universities? | Andy Westwood

Andy Westwood
For May, universities seem to be mechanisms through with other objectives, such as immigration, can be met. Photograph: Leon Neal/PA

Higher education policy is expected to be a key campaigning point for some parties in the run up to the general election on 8 June, with free university tuition central to Labour and SNP campaigns. But the more important issues to universities – in England at least – are likely to be the promises made by the Conservatives.

While you should expect that detailed promises are already in preparation, putting together a coherent vision could be trickier than it sounds – and they have just a week to do it. Writing in the Times, former Conservative MP Matthew Parris described his fear that Theresa May isn’t “particularly attached to anything” and that “a strong will, a strong mind, strong likes and strong dislikes do not amount to a programme for government”.

But don’t expect the Tories to say much more on higher education; it’s all already there in the higher education and research bill, which cleared the Lords on Thursday. Jo Johnson, the minister for universities and science, has given significant ground on the link between the Teaching Excellence Framework (Tef) and fees and additional amendments to the original bill. This year’s exercise will be independently scrutinised and the outcomes won’t be linked to differential fee rises.

May has refused to countenance the removal of international students from net migration figures, despite pleas from many fellow Cabinet members and the media – according to the Financial Times she would have preferred the HE and research bill to fail completely [£] rather than giving way on this totemic issue. Someone or something had to give and it wasn’t going to be the prime minister. Even if it had meant scrapping much of the new regulatory system built around the Office for Students and the Tef.

May’s interest in universities breaks away from that of Cameron and Osborne, and Blair and Brown. To her predecessors, universities were important because of what they were and what they did. But for May, they seem to be mechanisms through which other objectives can be met.

Controlling immigration, improving schools and supporting a new industrial strategy are just some of her priorities – and universities mainly offer a supporting role. We might see universities subjected to new visa regimes or more restrictive definitions of the brightest and best to facilitate lower immigration numbers. Or we might see more made of universities opening schools to improve social mobility and choice.

But despite some elements appearing vague, it’s the industrial strategy that offers the best opportunity to change this dynamic. First, there are the new financial commitments to science and technology. Second, there is the desire, closer to the prime minister’s heart, to offer a better future for those feeling left behind or marginalised by years of globalisation and technological change. In her foreword to the industry strategy green paper, May described the EU referendum as “an instruction to the government to change the way our country works – and the people for whom it works – forever”.

The Conservative campaign is prioritising the agenda of the “left behind”. May’s first two major election campaign visits have been to Bolton and Dudley – Labour heartlands in long-term economic decline where the majority voted to leave the EU. These are the “somewheres” described by David Goodhart in his book The Road to Somewhere, where people feel more vulnerable to economic and social change because they are rooted firmly in such places. Academics, students and graduates are largely seen as “anywheres”, the liberal-thinking elites who have gained most from the same changes.

But this election, like last summer’s referendum, is likely to be decided by the interests of the “somewheres”, and the Conservative manifesto will prioritise them. What then for universities?

Our first instincts have been to reassert our values and to push back. We defend experts, we march for science and proclaim the importance of migration and international collaboration. Of course we should continue to do so, but we must also guard against being easily dismissed as “bremoaners”, “saboteurs” or “citizens of nowhere”, especially if we want universities to be a priority in Brexit negotiations.

To make ourselves heard in this general election and in the parliament that will be formed by it, we must think and act in new ways. We must try to speak to the “somewheres” as much as to the “anywheres”. We must be as passionate about the communities and people on our doorsteps, as we are about those from the EU and beyond. We are international, but we are local too. That’s much more than playing to a populist agenda or a sceptical prime minister. It’s about doing the right thing.

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