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General election: Universities ‘could become key battleground’

Imgage: michael_swan [CC BY-ND 2.0] via Flickr

Sector urged to fight for its interests as campaign begins

Universities have been warned of a tough campaign ahead of the general election on 4 July, with higher education seen as a significant battleground in the run-up to the vote.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak announced the election on 22 May, sparking just over a month of political campaigning. That came as a growing sense of crisis around university finances started to hit the national headlines.

According to the Financial Times, Sue Gray, Labour’s chief of staff, has constructed a dossier of potential crises that could hit the party in power, with university insolvencies at number four on the list, below the potential collapse of Thames Water (in which the Universities Superannuation Scheme is heavily invested), public sector pay negotiations and overcrowding in prisons.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party has made immigration one of its campaign focuses, and sector attention will turn to whether further crackdowns on visa routes impacting higher education and research are pledged in its manifesto. But the sector’s biggest priority will be parties’ positions on tuition fees and higher education funding policy.

No time for complacency

“Everyone knows there’s something of a hole where Labour’s higher education policies will be, which now needs filling,” said Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute. “But I’m struck by the fact that we don’t really know how [the current government] envisages the future of higher education and research either.”

Diana Beech, chief executive of the London Higher group of universities and a former adviser to three universities ministers, said it was vital for the higher education sector to rally to protect its interests.

“With the clock ticking down to a general election on 4 July, there is no time for complacency from the sector,” she said. “The next five weeks will likely be a tough test for universities as campaigning ramps up and the risk intensifies of higher education becoming a key battleground for votes on both sides of the political fence.”