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Balancing acts

Rachel Wolf assesses what the Conservative Party conference is likely to reveal for universities

Governments rely on uneasy coalitions. In other countries, this is literal. In the UK, it is hidden. That means successful politicians must try to minimise the tensions within their electorates and stress the commonalities.

The challenge for Labour is to find a winning coalition. The challenge for the Conservatives is to keep theirs: a mix of traditional Tory, relatively affluent voters who care about economic competence and believe in a smaller state, and new working-class and lower middle-class voters who wanted Brexit done, more public spending and tangible improvements to the often dilapidated towns they live in.

The differences within this mix can be overstated. There is, in fact, a lot that people in this country have in common. Pretty much everyone prioritises the NHS, pretty much everyone cares about climate change, pretty much everyone wants some control over immigration and pretty much everyone is tough on crime.

Nor are the academic differences as stark as sometimes implied: a recent chart for the Financial Times showed that nearly 40 per cent of young people in new red wall seats got three Ds or above at A-level (a possible new grade boundary for minimum entry to university, though less likely than boundaries at GCSE level). In traditional Tory seats, it was just over 40 per cent. This is not a chasm.

Policies fit for conferences

But party conferences are interesting because they reveal how politicians try to 1) differentiate themselves from their opponents, while 2) staying firmly on the ground that can win them an outright majority and 3) keeping their base onside—people who attend the conference and are always further to the right or left than the electorate.

Accordingly, when I worked in Downing Street, I was encouraged to think of conference announcements on areas such as school discipline. Why? Because activists like it, Labour tends not to talk about it and it does well with the broader public.

This will, I am sure, horrify most readers, who would like politics to be more visionary, more high-minded and more serious. It can be. It often is (although my view is that ignoring people in a democracy is not a sign of high-mindedness) but, in my experience, rarely at a party conference.

Positive views

What, then, should universities be aware of? Firstly, they need to know how the electorate sees them, because that will be in politicians’ minds and affect policy.

So let’s start with the good news. In a recent large-scale piece of opinion research for the UPP Foundation and the Higher Education Policy Institute, Public First found that the electorate viewed universities quite positively. Four times as many people regarded universities’ impact as positive (43 per cent) than those who saw it as negative (11 per cent). A canny politician will understand that people still want their children to have the option of university—70 per cent of those with children aged between 11 and 15 feel this way.

Research is also seen very positively, with 72 per cent agreeing that university research is one of the best things produced in the UK as a country and 84 per cent proud that one of the main Covid vaccines was developed in collaboration with a British university. Patriotism, which our work with the Wellcome Trust also underlined, makes research more popular. It would be good if more academics and universities were willing to talk in those terms.

Finally, while the ‘culture war’—free speech, statues, etc—is a major dividing line between universities and the government, the public doesn’t care about it very much and mostly wants to talk about something else.

Civic agenda

Now, the less good news. While positive views are more common than negative, almost half (46 per cent) feel completely neutral about universities. The majority—and even the majority of graduates—also think society values a university degree too highly.

Working-class people—the new Conservative voters—are much less likely to have visited a university, and as a result they are less likely to view it positively. In other words, there is a very large group of people who don’t care about higher education very much, or what happens to it. They are more likely to be the new Conservative electorate.

They also, in our focus groups, struggle to link both R&D and the local economic impact of universities to their daily lives. This is where the recent civic agenda pursued by some universities, and spearheaded by the UPP Foundation, is critical.

What about the money?

And finally, the bad news. Firstly, in a fight between supporting more ‘skills’—apprenticeships, further education, shorter courses—and more university, both activists and the new Conservative electorate fall firmly on the side of skills. A lifelong loan entitlement and more money for skills is also one of the only really substantive levelling-up policies the government has. It will pursue it.

It is extremely unlikely that it will also put more money into higher education, for the simple reason that ministers have decided that ‘economic competence’ means keeping the deficit down, and the money therefore needs to come from somewhere. Universities are a better target than the NHS or welfare, and the government won’t do yet more tax rises now. This means there is almost guaranteed to be some rebalancing.

Secondly, because research is hard to understand and make palpable, people won’t really notice if it’s cut—particularly if it’s cut by stealth. I would be surprised if there weren’t some financial wizardry at the Treasury that allows the government to claim it’s funding research much more than it really is.

What does all this mean? Probably that things will get a little bit worse for universities in teaching and a bit better in research, but not dramatically in either case. And for the government, walking this tricky tightrope is the balancing act it will need to perform to keep the latest Conservative coalition behind it.

Rachel Wolf is a founding partner at the consultancy Public First and a former higher education policy adviser to Boris Johnson.