Jonathan Woodhead considers how the future of higher education might look under another new government
As the Westminster version of pass the parcel of ministerial roles ends with Liz Truss being out as prime minister, what happens next? Assuming no immediate general election—or no election for two years—and that the political pendulum goes back to anywhere near normal, what could the higher education and research sectors be looking out for?
Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, has said that the new leader will be in place by 28 October and possibly as early as tomorrow. MPs will, again, whittle down the choice of candidates who wish to take the top job. For the main candidates, the ink will barely be dry on their posters from the previous campaign, but new entrants are also theoretically possible. If two or more candidates secure the 100 nominations needed and no-one steps down after the MPs’ vote, the Conservative Party membership will again decide the winner, through online voting.
But whoever wins will have to be acceptable both to the party membership and to MPs. This was one of the underlying problems (along with economic issues) of the short-lived Truss premiership. She secured the lowest percentage support of party members of any leader since they could vote on the party leadership—a change introduced in 1998 under William Hague.
And if Rishi Sunak (favourite with MPs in this summer’s leadership campaign but not with members) were to be crowned leader without any challenge, there would likely be a fissure within the Conservative Party that could be difficult to plug.
Even if the internal politics of the Conservative Party are sorted out, a new prime minister will have to tackle a range of issues facing the UK. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine presents a major foreign policy challenge that ripples out into domestic politics in the form of energy shortages, food shortages, transport costs and inflation. As Huntonomics replaces Trussonomics, no prime minister will want to deviate too much from the broader Hunt economic plan, having seen the response from the financial markets and the public. So where does this leave universities?
The sector still faces many challenges: frozen tuition fee levels, value for money of courses, dropout rates and being attacked as part of the culture wars. But if Boris Johnson were to return to the fray, I think it can feel reassured that the Lifelong Loan Entitlement would go ahead, as would a return to the levelling-up agenda.
A major speech of the Johnson era was that on skills at Exeter College in September 2020, in which he announced a raft of policies on post-16 education. A number of these policies, such as the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, designed to transform adult education, fell short. But the Lifelong Loan Entitlement captured the interest of both the further and higher education sectors as genuinely transformational.
Science and research would also remain a priority, although funding would be unlikely to increase across the board. This would play well to the (winning) electoral coalition that Johnson created and that was junked under Truss. The only way forward (or even just to stand still) for the Conservative Party is to embrace that coalition of former Labour red wall voters. Many of these areas have long-established further education colleges and local universities where those voters’ children and grandchildren go. Whether the Augar review will ever fully receive a government response may remain one of the mysteries of Whitehall.
What about the other candidates? There is a strong economic case for Sunak, but his earlier proposals on further and higher education (in so much that there were any) were around the creation of ‘Voxbridge’—a proposed vocational further education version of Oxbridge—and pitted A-levels against a proposed British baccalaureate.
The now previous, previous government had already launched Institutes of Technology and there is already a lively debate about A-levels, T-levels and Btecs, without much more to be added in the short time before an election.
Kemi Badenoch, once a possible contender but who has now come out in support of Sunak, has said little about education other than through the prism of culture wars and equality issues, which may lessen as economic pressures increase. As a Birkbeck law alumna, she knows about the challenges of working and learning, so this may influence her priorities on post-16 education should she have his ear..
So to Penny Mordaunt, who, knocked out at an early stage in the previous contest, has spent time looking into social issues and political reform in post-Brexit Britain through her book Greater: Britain after the Storm. As a former trade minister with a large university next to her constituency, she will be aware of the strengths of British higher education as both an export and an economic driver in Portsmouth. In terms of levelling up left-behind areas and civic university missions, her view will be similar to that of Johnson—namely, the need to transform the UK to fit a post-Brexit Britain.
For all of the leadership candidates, fiscal headroom will be limited. But there is still room to set priorities. It may be a futile hope, but it is vital that measures that support growth, such as the Lifelong Loan Entitlement and increased science spending, are kept—in cash if not real terms. Otherwise, whoever wins will find their remaining time in government could be wasted.
Jonathan Woodhead is a policy adviser to the vice-chancellor of Birkbeck, University of London, and a former adviser to Conservative business and higher education ministers. He writes here in a personal capacity.