Go back


With a real prospect of exercising power in the near future, Labour needs to start winning over universities as well as their students.

In the end it was a bigger political shock than either the Brexit vote or the election of Donald Trump. The result of the EU referendum was in keeping with polling data and Trump’s pathway to the White House echoed that of his campaign for the Republican nomination. But the UK 2017 general election result marks an unprecedented poll collapse by a ruling party against a seemingly divided opposition—and has implications for all aspects of public life, including higher education.

Just two weeks ago the Conservatives could boast a commanding 20-point lead across a range of polls. One disastrous manifesto launch and two terror attacks later—plus a catastrophically misjudged and personalised campaign—the UK has a hung parliament. It was the Conservatives’ to lose. And lose it they did, spectacularly.

Theresa May called this election so as not to have to rely on the right-wing of her own party to enact a domestic programme. Now she is clinging onto the possibility of power thanks to the votes of Scottish Tories and the abstention of Irish Republicans, and through a supply and confidence arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, the party of Ian Paisley. I give it six months at the most.

One suspects that what the press likes to euphemistically refer to as “senior Tories” will be asking Theresa May to consider her position this weekend.

The political momentum and moral authority—something that matters in these circumstances—now rests with Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader. Yes, he lost the election, but it feels like a heroic defeat—one in which he piled up votes where it mattered. He and his team will need to be treated quite differently from now on.

It is not a right-wing smear to say that he remains ill-prepared for the post he holds and the job he seeks. Nor is it a Blairite snipe to describe as hapless the performance of the Labour Party since his election as leader. It also remains true that for Labour to form a majority government at Westminster, it will need to go further into Conservative-held marginals and that to achieve this will require an electoral offer more accommodating of centrist opinion.

But Mr Corbyn’s critics in the party must now swing behind his leadership, showing the same discipline that they have in the past fortnight. Equally, Corbyn should avoid any temptation to give in to the basest instincts of some of his most ardent followers and to use this unexpected electoral success to purge the party of dissenting voices. Instead he should spent the next six months taking the moral high ground and preparing for a second election, while the Tories lie in the bed that they have made and then set alight.

All of this has significant implications for universities, which will not have to come to an accommodation with a landslide administration that aimed to set-in like the British weather. It is a completely different thing for higher education to interact with a time-limited minister in an unstable minority government.

With the prime minister’s advisors Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill made to carry the can for this terrible election result that will also have significance for higher education policy. Timothy in particular was keen on school sponsorship was was a fan of the rhetoric of “the brightest and the best”.

Already the Higher Education Funding Council for England has announced that publication of the results of the Teaching Excellence Framework results, scheduled for release on Monday, have been postponed. They will be sitting in an in-tray with a briefing note but require a minister to be briefed and to sign them off. At any rate, it is unlikely that the TEF will be a priority for a short-lived coalition permanently on suicide watch.

The Research Excellence Framework may well go the same way, not that the funding council is any nearer to confirming what a response to its own consultation should be. The pressure to rush a decision will be considerable. Under such circumstances, bad decisions are often made. A future alternative government may also want to unpick that.

With a Corbyn government a genuine prospect within 12 months, say, it is unclear what the place of the TEF and the REF would be within the National Education Service mooted in the Labour manifesto. However, all of that would come after the proposed abolition of university tuition fees in England.

The victor in a hung parliament is the one who can see beyond it. Labour would do well to put some detail around its higher education proposals and to start building confidence among academics. That is the difference between being in government and being an effective campaign group.

Corbyn’s higher education policies are so different from the funding environment universities have become used to that vice chancellors had better seek out lecturers in their sociology departments to explain it to them.

Finally, for now, it is worth highlighting the role of young people in this election. As yet there are no robust figures on the demographics of participation in this poll, but it certainly looks as if a large student turnout has helped to flip seats in key marginals for Labour.

This is significant in two ways. First universities can expect their student body to be more politically active as a result of this election. Even if a Corbyn government never comes to pass, the question of fees and intergenerational justice is back on the agenda.

Second it is not an exaggeration to say that youth participation has saved the Labour Party from ruin and irrelevance. The young canvassers and envelope-stuffers of this election will be the Labour frontbench of tomorrow. The party has reinvigorated itself and these young activists neither know nor care about the histories of the SDP, Militant or New Labour.

The future is there for Labour to take. The present is a mess of the Conservative’s own making.

Martin McQuillan is deputy vice-chancellor for research at Kingston University.