How manifesto pledges would affect the future of UK universities

Out-Law Analysis | 06 May 2015 | 11:05 am | 3 min. read

FOCUS: Apart from Labour's headline-grabbing promise to reduce the maximum tuition fee chargeable by English universities to £6,000, the main UK political parties have not done much to publicise their visions for higher education after this week's general election.

However, included in the detail of the parties' manifestos are commitments that would have a considerable impact on the management of universities, the recruitment of students and the types of speakers to whom universities would be able to provide a platform.

Access and application to universities

In their manifesto, the Conservative Party has reaffirmed its commitment to abolishing the cap on student numbers, which is due to be finally removed for academic year 2015/16. This move, which was originally announced as part of 2013's Autumn Statement and partly implemented in academic year 2014/15, has opened up the higher education sector to greater competition by removing the restrictions on supply, giving more students keen to experience higher education the opportunity to do so.

A future Conservative government would require more data to be made openly available to potential students so that they could make decisions informed by the career paths of past graduates, according to the party's manifesto. Labour has pledged to introduce a new, independent careers advice system, which would offer personalised face-to-face guidance on routes into university and apprenticeships. Its manifesto is silent on whether it would restore the cap on student numbers, or abolish it as planned.

Immigration and visas

Immigration issues have been at the heart of the 2015 general election campaigns. Immigration is also a subject of huge importance to universities, as they rely on being able to recruit both overseas students and academic staff for their continued international success and financial viability. Research conducted on behalf of Universities UK, the representative body for UK universities, and think tank British Future last summer found that the majority of the UK public supported the removal of international students from government immigration figures, while many also supported allowing international students to stay on and work after finishing their degrees.

The Conservative manifesto promises further reform of the student visa system, with new measures including clamping down on the number of so-called 'satellite campuses' opened in London by universities located elsewhere in the UK and once again reviewing the highly trusted sponsor system for student visas. It is unlikely that these measures would go down well in the sector.

Of the larger political parties, only UKIP specifically promises to categorise overseas students separately in government immigration figures. Labour has nothing specific to that effect, only promising to welcome overseas students "who bring billions to Britain" while tightening the system to prevent abuse.

The prospect of a referendum on EU membership would not be welcomed by the sector, which has a high degree of dependency on the EU - particularly in relation to research grants and joint projects, but also as a source of students.

Crime

The Conservative Party has promised to take further measures to ensure that colleges and universities do not give a platform to extremist speakers. This is a policy which has met with a lot of resistance from the higher education sector, and it is likely to prove difficult to implement in practice.

Other interesting pledges

The Conservative manifesto includes plans to introduce a framework which would recognise those universities offering the highest teaching quality. It will be interesting to see whether, if implemented, this would affect the current balance between teaching and research in which research tends to attract more prestige and therefore more funding.

The Labour manifesto pledge to ensure that all young people study English and Maths until the age of 18 could indirectly help to improve access to a wider range of universities by under-represented groups, although this doesn't necessarily appear to be the intention behind the policy. Regardless, universities would welcome undergraduate students arriving with more Maths and English skills. Labour and the Liberal Democrat Party also have some specific plans on technical education and apprenticeships: Labour would introduce a Technical Baccalaureate, create new Technical Degrees and support part-time study; while the Liberal Democrat Party would extend the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers for the remainder of the next parliament.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto has some interesting proposals in a number of areas, including on access to universities: these include initiatives to widen participation through early intervention in schools and colleges, and requiring universities to be transparent about their selection criteria. It also proposes to develop a comprehensive credit accumulation and transfer framework to help students transfer between and within institutions, enable more part-time learning and help more people to complete qualifications.

This final measure in particular would make a major difference to students by improving the portability of their experience, but has met with resistance in the sector to date – and there has been no incentive for institutions to embrace it. Otherwise, there is very little in the manifestos on the student experience in universities.

Nicola Hart in an expert on universities and higher education at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.