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Interview: Iain Mansfield


Former Department for Education adviser, now director at Policy Exchange, talks all things higher education

This is an extract from the Research Professional News 8am Playbook email, published 19 April. To enquire about subscribing to Playbook, please fill in this form and include 8am Playbook as the subject.

If there is one thing that Iain Mansfield, director of research and head of education at Policy Exchange, seems to want to get across when we meet at the think tank’s Westminster office, it is that England’s higher education funding system is irreparably broken and the silver bullet is to reintroduce student number controls.

Playbook met up with Mansfield—the serial special adviser who has, in his time, advised Michelle Donelan, Gavin Williamson, Jo Johnson and Kwasi Kwarteng—just before the spring break. Fixing what Policy Exchange has termed a “funding impasse” in higher education was top of the agenda.

“The current system is not sustainable; no one can increase the unit of resource and that’s a problem. No one really knows where to go. If we want to keep high-quality universities in this country, we need to find a way to make sure the unit of resource doesn’t go down year after year.”

Playbook readers need no reminder that fees were frozen at £9,250 by Theresa May several years ago, partly because of the popularity of then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to abolish them altogether. Since then, inflationary erosion means that some courses cost more to deliver to domestic students than the money they bring in.

At a Policy Exchange event last week, Johnson was among the speakers arguing against number controls—although his alternative would ensure university sustainability by charging students more than £12,000 a year. It is fair to say the sector is split on the issue, with undoubted benefits to be reaped from the lifting of the cap.

The reforms of 2012, which trebled fees and lifted the numbers cap, were “well intentioned” but have ultimately failed, Mansfield believes. “I do think with hindsight that that was a very severe mistake that has stacked up problems for the sector,” he says.

“This Conservative government is unwilling to raise fees and it is hard to see how a Labour government would raise fees—they might have a more benign outlook on universities, but the idea that they will come in and universities will be able to raise fees seems very unlikely to me,” Mansfield adds.

The return of number controls wouldn’t necessarily mean a reduction in student numbers, he continues—but it would allow more “honest conversations” about where money is spent. Playbook might suggest that any number controls would by definition restrict access to higher education and, unless accompanied by an increase in funding from somewhere, could well mean a decline in absolute undergraduate numbers.

Moving on, Mansfield argues that, broadly, there are three areas competing for additional funding in university teaching: increasing the unit of resource either for some or all courses; increasing money for student support and maintenance loans or grants for the poorest; and increasing the number of places.

“If we had number controls, we can actually talk about the balance,” he says. “Currently, all that money goes into funding expanded places and that unit of resource and student support are getting steadily cannibalised. That is not a healthy long-term place to be.”

Mansfield also points to recent Office for Students data showing that the completion rate gap between poorer students and others has widened. “This sounds almost like we are getting number controls by the back door because people can’t afford to stay the course,” he says. “That may not be the case but it is certainly something to worry about. It is much better to have a control and then fund people properly in terms of maintenance.”

Brexit retrospective

This is not the first time that Playbook has chewed the fat with Mansfield. Back in 2019, we spoke about his 2014 essay detailing the potential benefits of Brexit. His 68-page Blueprint for Britain won a €100,000 (£88,000) prize offered in a contest run by the Institute of Economic Affairs to find the best plan on how to leave the EU.

Most of the economic predictions cited in that work have yet to come to pass, although to be fair he did advocate a closer trading agreement with the EU. His prediction that “the years immediately surrounding the exit are likely to feature some degree of market uncertainty” was rather more on point.

Perhaps a little crudely, Playbook asked Mansfield a blunt question. Has Brexit been good for the UK higher education sector?

“Good for UK higher education? I think viewed at that level of detail, with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic as well, it is very hard to answer that. You are asking that question, but that is not the right question to ask,” he replies.

“For me, Brexit was about the future direction of the UK as an independent country in the same way as the debate on Scottish independence [asks]: should Scotland be an independent country or should it be part of the UK? To be making that decision on whether or not it is good or bad for one specific sector is not the way I would look at those existential national questions,” he adds.

“In the essay, I said there would be short-term economic shocks…We’ve also had some major economic shocks with the war in Ukraine and Covid as well. You are going to have to wait for some time to see how the economic impact plays out.”

Elsewhere in our chat, Mansfield concedes that the positive commitment to research funding made by successive Conservative-led governments has had something of its shine taken off by failure, so far, to associate with Horizon Europe.

Free speech

Joining the Brexit essay as one of Mansfield’s most high-profile pieces of work is the higher education free speech bill currently making its way through parliament. The proposed legislation was of course drawn up by a team of civil servants, advisers and ministers across the Department for Education—but it is widely acknowledged that Mansfield’s fingerprints are all over it.

During its passage towards law, a legal tort—one that gives a right to seek compensation to no-platformed speakers and others who feel that their right to be heard has been suppressed—has been inserted, removed and then reinserted, albeit with the caveat that the tort is only for use in exceptional cases. Is Mansfield happy with the way the bill has been shaped?

“I am very happy with the way it has ended up, assuming it does end up there,” he says. “The tort isn’t about Amber Rudd getting cancelled; the tort is for serious things like a student being expelled or an academic losing their job.” Former home secretary Rudd was due to speak at a student union event several years ago, but her appearance was cancelled at the last minute.

“I think the bill has already had an impact,” Mansfield continues. “If you look at how universities have responded to things in various cases since the bill has been going through parliament, they have responded in ways in which they wouldn’t have before. If you look at Scotland, you are still seeing vice-chancellors respond in the old way.”

In England, he says vice-chancellors (“most of whom I think do believe in free speech”) have taken stock of their policies on free speech. “They have said: ‘Hang on a minute, we need to look at what is going on in our institutions and take a stand and say we are not going to bow to a Twitter mob, cancel this event or sack this academic.’ We have seen a number of cases where things have been raised and ended up in a better position.”

One of the highest-profile free speech cases concerns Kathleen Stock, who left the University of Sussex after a persistent student campaign against her gender-critical views. Would the bill have affected what transpired in this case?

“I think there is a good chance it would have done,” Mansfield says. “The campaign against her had gone on for about three years…Maybe if you’d had a [free speech] director at the Office for Students and a bill with some clear duties, they could have got a handle on it before it got quite as bad as it did towards the end.”

How, though, can universities balance the need to protect the free speech of academics with the free speech rights of students who disagree with their views?

“Heckler’s veto is not free speech—you don’t get to shut someone else down,” Mansfield says. “You can stand outside with banners. Asking difficult questions is fine, but actually shouting someone down isn’t.

“The other [issue] is when it spills over into threats. If you have academics or students on campus who require police protection, and it is due to threats being made by other students or staff, you clearly have a problem there.”

Universities should be centres of debate, and it is not their job to come down exclusively on one side or the other, he continues. “If you get vice-chancellors, deans, heads of faculty or other people in charge of promotion or hiring making clear that they think only one political viewpoint is acceptable then that’s when you start getting the chilling effect [on free speech],” he says. “There is a distinction between individual academics and the management of an organisation.”

Home Office friction

As our discussion nears its end, the subject of international students arises. There are longstanding differences in the rhetoric about overseas scholars that emanates from the Department for Education when compared with the noises made by the Home Office. Universities of course value the cultural and economic enrichment they can bring, but the government has reservations about how the optics of a rapidly increasing international student body might play with some of its core voters.

“I think I was there [at the Department for Education] through a rare period of detente [between the department and the Home Office],” Mansfield recalls. “Perhaps we were all too worried about Covid.”

His personal view is that international students are “a good thing, and we should be welcoming them—the growth has been really positive”. However, there is one possible problem.

“If there is one area where I have a slight bit of concern, I do think the rapid growth in dependants from about 10,000 a few years ago to over 100,000 now does change the tone of the debate a little bit.” That might require a bit of looking at, he says, musing that perhaps the arrival of dependants should be restricted to PhD students only.

“There are some questions to be answered. Is there any gaming [of the visa system] happening there? I don’t know the evidence for that, but it is the one area I would look at. But overall, we should be welcoming international students with open arms.”

While Home Office friction may have been minimal in his time at Whitehall, he does acknowledge a fair amount of friction between higher education institutions and both the Department for Education and the Office for Students. Things are smoother in other parts of government, he feels.

“On the research side, it is really positive. It isn’t perfect, but it is pretty positive actually. I think the goal on the teaching side ultimately should be trying to get to that place,” he says.

“On the research side, we have managed to balance autonomy and accountability in a really strong way. Government does decide the total amount that will go to each of the research councils, so it does get to say how much we spend on medical research versus engineering or arts and humanities, but it doesn’t decide which projects to do.

“It does decide through the Research Excellence Framework that some universities will get more money than others…but then decisions about how to implement that are left to individual academics.” Finding a way to similarly balance “autonomy and democratic oversight” on the teaching side is important, he says.

As we wrap up, Playbook wonders if Mansfield will be around long enough for another chat in a few months’ time, since last time he worked for Policy Exchange it lasted a matter of months.

In late 2019 to early 2020, he served as the think tank’s head of education after leaving Whitehall following Jo Johnson’s surprise resignation. Asked back by Gavin Williamson, Mansfield said he couldn’t turn him down. Would he be similarly keen to jump ship again if a special adviser role became available?

“This is for the long haul—I have no plans to jump back in,” he says. “Who knows, in 5 or 10 years’ time, there is a whole half of my career ahead of me. But right now there is something very liberating about having time to think and explore some issues outside [of government], which is very enjoyable and satisfying.”