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Election 2024: The definitive guide to the last 14 years

 Image: The Conservative Party [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Martin McQuillan surveys the higher education landscape as the country goes to the polls

It started in 2010, coinciding with the publication of the Browne Review, Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education. It could end at 10pm today, amidst a sustainability crisis for Britain’s universities.

With every poll suggesting the end of Conservative rule and a historic defeat for the party, we reflect on the last 14 years of Tory higher education policies. Let’s start with the basic numbers.

We have had five prime ministers: David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. There have been 10 education secretaries: Michael Gove (not actually responsible for universities), Nicky Morgan, Justine Greening, Damian Hinds, Gavin Williamson, Nadhim Zahawi, Michelle Donelan, James Cleverly, Kit Malthouse (bet you’d forgotten him) and Gillian Keegan.

There have also been nine (or possibly 11) universities ministers: David Willetts, Greg Clark, Jo Johnson, Sam Gyimah, Chris Skidmore, Jo Johnson, Chris Skidmore, Michelle Donelan, Andrea Jenkyns, Robert Halfon and Luke Hall. To put that in context, it took Dr Who 47 years to go through their first 11 regenerations and did not start doubling up until last series.

Since the universities and research briefs were consciously uncoupled in 2020, there have been five science ministers in four years: Amanda Solloway, George Freeman, Nus Ghani, George Freeman (again) and Andrew Griffiths. That is a total of 12 science ministers, including reappointments.

During this time we have seen:

The Coalition government’s response to the Browne Review, the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees, the ruin of Nick Clegg’s reputation and the toxification of student finance as a political issue, unprecedented student protests, a white paper entitled, ‘Students at the heart of the system’, and the subsequent prosecution of some of the said student protestors. Then there was the policy of allowing unconstrained recruitment of university applicants with AAB at A-level, a plan designed to differentiate the herd but which simply encouraged all universities to charge the full £9,000 fee.

The years of Cameron and Osborne austerity brought us local government budgets cut, NHS budgets cut, the scrapping of the educational maintenance allowance and the Building Schools for the Future Programme, a flat cash settlement for the science budget, as well as cuts to non-protected Whitehall departments including business and education. Universities lost maintenance grants, training bursaries for nurses and much of the disabled students’ allowance, but gained Key Information Sets, which, like TRAC returns, have proved oddly enduring—maybe someone just forgot to do away with them.

In these early Tory years, the country got austerity riots and Andrew Lansley’s Byzantine reforms of the NHS. Education under Michael Gove was given free schools and forced academisation, while universities were introduced to marketisation. David Cameron’s Big Society gave us the National Citizen’s Service for 16 to 19-years-olds, which everyone had forgotten about until a decade later, when Rishi Sunak slashed its budget claiming it did not represent value for money.

As the prime minister’s director of communications, Andy Coulson was embroiled in the phone-hacking scandal—when a certain Keir Starmer was director of public prosecutions—and ministers floated the sale of the student loan book, based on legislation passed by the previous Labour government. The post-study work visa for international students was scrapped.

A Scottish independence vote in 2014 convinced David Cameron that referendums were splendid things for settling complex and difficult problems. UKIP was stirring and Cameron warned about “chaos under Ed Miliband” during the 2015 election campaign.

Then the Brexit referendum: citizens of nowhere, enough of experts, Article 50, out of Erasmus+, out of Horizon Europe, out of Euratom, out of Galileo, out of the regional development fund. The European Medicines Agency left London, sterling was devalued, freedom of movement ended, as did the mutual recognition of qualifications. Universities found themselves on the wrong side of a populist tide.

May days

The “strong and stable” years of Theresa May brought us the Northern Ireland Protocol, the Withdrawal Agreement, Go Home vans, the hostile environment, the Windrush scandal, ramped-up visa fees for international students, ramped-up salary thresholds for staff visas, and a ban on sending books to people in prison.

2017 brought us the Higher Education and Research Act, the end of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Teaching Excellence Framework, UK Research and Innovation, the Office for Students, alternative providers, postgraduate loans, the Apprenticeship Levy, and LEO data on graduate salaries. There would be a row over grade inflation and “lamentable teaching” in universities.

We became familiar with conditions of registration and an industrial strategy was published, while the universities brief came under the Department for Education but also the Competitions and Markets Authority. Then Theresa May thought she could take on Jeremy Corbyn in an election, with hilarious consequences.

The ‘Youthquake’ was followed by confidence and supply from the DUP, and a costly rise in the student loan repayment threshold. Tuition fees in England rose to £9,250 one month after the election.

Theresa May wanted a review of higher education funding, Jo Johnson and Justine Greening resisted before the prime minister decided she no longer wanted Johnson and Greening. The Augar review recommended cutting fees to £7,500, restoring a partial teaching grant for universities, bringing back means-tested maintenance grants, defunding foundation degrees and minimal entry requirements for degree courses—none of which ever happened.

Meanwhile, Sam Gyimah went on a nationwide campus tour, most notable for the less than reliable anecdotes about free speech and “bums on seats” the universities minister picked up along the way. Just before Christmas the entire Social Mobility Commission resigned.

Brexit did for Theresa May, leaving her more time to run through fields of wheat. That meant Jo Johnson’s big brother would become prime minister, which paved the way for Johnson junior quitting the government.

Low ebb

Soon we would have science genius Dominic Cummings and the unlawful prorogation of parliament, threats of a no-deal Brexit, and the sacking of rebel Tory MPs, including Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames, Tory grandee Ken Clarke, and stalwarts Philip Hammond, Greg Clark and Rory Stewart.

There was also golden wallpaper and technology lessons in the afternoon.

Universities were caught between a culture war and science superpower status. There was the R&D expenditure target of 2.3 per cent of GDP by 2026, which may or may not have been helped by the government purchasing the wrong kind of low-orbit satellites.

The university-centred Initial Teacher Training model was dismantled and the government’s own industrial strategy scrapped. There was much talk of degree apprenticeships, the MIT of the north and our particular favourite, UK Space Command.

But the Covid-19 pandemic was around the corner and universities in England would be reliant on the leadership skills of education secretary Gavin Williamson. Campuses closed and everyone moved to world-class online teaching overnight (no refunds available).

In time for university campuses reopening after seven months, Williamson brought us the A-level Fiasco, which at least was not as bad as the Barnard Castle debacle and the VIP lane for PPE contracts.

Science had its moment in the sun with Patrick Vallance, Chris Whitty and the Oxford vaccine. However, the government’s Test and Trace scheme proved to be about as useful as its onerous universities bailout plan, which vice-chancellors found remarkably easy to turn down.

As the EU-funded Jenner Lab at the University of Oxford helped save the world from the novel coronavirus, universities minister Michelle Donelan brought us “student travel windows”, and Gavin Williamson reprised the hit of the previous summer with A-level Fiasco 2. Oddly enough, the permanent secretary at the department for education was sacked for it.

The highlight of Williamson’s tenure at the DfE was the news that the Christmas party he organised there was so rubbish it did not meet the threshold for criminal prosecution. The same could not be said of Downing Street, where both the prime minister and the chancellor, like many students before them, received fixed-penalty notices.

Levelling-up came and went. We had a science roadmap, the botched introduction of T-levels, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (which is yet to award a single grant) and the arrival of Conservative peer James Wharton as chair of the OfS.

While universities were embroiled in a strike over pensions that lasted longer than the First World War, the Conservatives gave us the Turing Scheme, an exchange programme which did not allow any foreigners into the country—and which would later move from the safe hands of the British Council to expert outsourcers Capita, which was doing such a good job of not recruiting soldiers to the British army.

Life’s rich tapestry was enhanced by the Knowledge Exchange Framework and the graduate visa route was reintroduced—before Michelle Donelan set a world record of serving in the role of education secretary for a total of 36 hours.

End game

Donelan’s selfless act of public service was the nail in the coffin for Boris Johnson’s regime and soon we would have Liz Truss as prime minister. She was not around long enough to do anything to universities, but she did manage to crash the UK economy during her 45-day premiership.

Although no one could afford to buy food or heat their homes, never mind pay their mortgages, the UK was on track for a £20 million science budget. It’s just a pity that six months of double-digit inflation eroded many of the gains from that investment.

Everyone was enthusiastic about the creation of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, an excitement duly tempered when we discovered that Donelan would be running it. In the meantime, with Horizon Europe seemingly out of reach, man of science George Freeman tempted us with the inspiringly entitled Plan B.

Universities were denied Teacher’s Pension Scheme transition funds and the Quality Assurance Agency refused to act any longer as the UK’s designated body on the grounds that government policy on higher education no longer met international standards. The Lifelong Learning Entitlement legislation was passed without anyone knowing what to do with it next.

We also got the Freedom of Speech (Higher Education) bill, the scholastic equivalent of the Dangerous Dogs Act. At the same time, universities were told to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, resulting in 40 cases brought against students, academics, unions and societies—38 of which were subsequently cleared. 

There was a review of red tape in research, which everyone hoped would recommend the government stop asking Paul Nurse to conduct reviews of the science landscape. DSIT has proved truly world-leading in the production of multitudinous strategies, reviews, reports and roadmaps while delivering on very little of anything much.

A summer of industrial action saw academics boycott exam marking and civil servants strike over cuts to staffing levels for the engine room of the science superpower. Student loan repayment thresholds were frozen and the loan period extended, dragging thousands more into a 40 per cent marginal tax rate during a cost-of-living crisis.

Mickey Mouse degrees battled with the Rwanda Scheme for attention on the front pages, while students visited food banks following a miserly 2.8 per cent rise in maintenance loans. The science secretary declared war on woke science, while the education secretary promised minimum service agreements in universities.

The Windsor Framework opened the door to rejoining Horizon Europe on worse terms than before, while UKRI chief executive Ottoline Leyser announced she really could not face a second term in the job. There was a bar on international master’s students’ dependants and the inexplicable but hilarious return of David Cameron—as foreign secretary.

The education secretary discovered a love for reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, while the science secretary settled a libel action against academic members of an equality advisory committee. The prime minister promised an Advanced British Standard baccalaureate that would bring parity of esteem to vocational education at the same time as defunding BTEC qualifications.

There was a rapid review of the graduate visa route, which happened only marginally quicker than the higher education sector’s descent into a sustainability crisis with dozens of institutions having recently run or currently running redundancy programmes.

Then, six weeks ago, one wet Wednesday afternoon in Downing Street, Rishi Sunak put us all out of his misery and called a general election. We have since learned that in the unlikely event of another Conservative government, the National Prosperity Fund will be dissolved to pay for compulsory national service for school leavers and that 100,000 new apprenticeships will replace one-eighth of all degree courses.

Two-time Conservative universities and science minister Chris Skidmore said he would be voting Labour. Stanley Johnson, father of Jo and Boris, and a former Conservative MEP, said he would be voting Lib Dem.

And so, the country heads to the nearest church hall or primary school to place an X next to a name with what looks suspiciously like a pencil lifted from the bookies across the road, which somehow seems like a fitting way to end this campaign. We do not know what the outcome will be, but we will be staying up all night to bring you news of the count in depth.

Over to you now, dear reader, go and do your national service.

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