Applications to higher education from UK students are rising. The gap between the application rate of young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds compared to those from the most privileged backgrounds is narrowing. The graduate labour market is improving. You might think it’s time for the political spotlight to move away from higher education. Yet it isn’t going anywhere.
Some of the attention is welcome. Numbers of UK postgraduate students have not been rising. In the Autumn Statement the Chancellor promised financial help in the way of government loans. In the meantime the Higher Education Funding Council has a fund to grow programmes in a targeted way.
One year earlier the Chancellor announced the lifting of student number controls on undergraduate recruitment for the 2015/16 academic year. This new era of competition is dawning right now. There are interesting flashes of what it might look like in the latest UCAS data, showing for example a sharp increase in the numbers of unconditional offers. Universities are competing to attract talent more strongly than ever before. But those who lose out will face difficulties. Already in the years since the introduction of higher tuition fees, some institutions have seen a double-digit percentage decrease.
Overseas student recruitment continues to get political attention. This attention is a mixed blessing. Net migration is rising, despite the Conservatives’ pledge to bring it down to the tens of thousands. As yet we don’t know if this pledge will be repeated in the manifesto or, if it is, then what further measures may be promised to achieve it. By contrast the other major parties have hinted that they would exert looser controls on students coming to the UK as compared to other migrants.
The trouble with this is that marginal improvements to current policy for students may be lost in the noise of wider rhetoric that is critical of immigration. Recruiters will know that perceptions of the UK can be as important as policy in shaping the application choices of students overseas. The backdrop of ongoing economic growth – and rising numbers of vacancies in the labour market – is nevertheless a positive.
By contrast to the arguments about overseas students, very little political attention has focused on recent work by consumer advocacy organisation Which?, suggesting that many universities fail to demonstrate best practice in the terms they offer to their students. For example, Which? found a number of cases where universities had complete discretion to make changes to courses that would be adverse for students and offered them no remedy if such changes were made. Especially now that students pay much more of the cost of their courses via fees, consumer protection should be as strong as possible.
It is fees themselves that remain the single most important topic in the politics of higher education. The Conservatives are unlikely to say anything on fees in their manifesto. The Liberal Democrats have suggested that there may be a review of how current policy is operating if they return to government. Labour has yet to announce its position.
The Shadow Secretary of State, Chuka Umunna, has said that eventually Labour would like to introduce a graduate tax. It’s hard to know what this means. The present system of income-contingent loan repayments has many of the features of a graduate tax already. More salient perhaps is the idea to reduce fees to a cap of £6,000 per year. The board members of Universities UK have already written to The Times attacking this policy, on the basis that it will leave the sector with a £10bn funding gap over the next Parliament. Some may question that figure. Can’t some degrees be delivered more cheaply? Haven’t some universities raised more money through fees than they used to receive in public funding?
It’s unlikely that Labour will satisfy everyone by whatever increase it proposes in public funding to replace the loss of income from lower fees. The debate between politicians and university leaders will only intensify if Labour does announce the policy that many in the sector most fear. Some will be supportive, though even for them the uncertainty created by the continued speculation about fees – uncertainty that may be protracted by coalition negotiations following the election – is unlikely to be welcome.
Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect that the spotlight of politics will ever move away from a sector that is at the heart of an advanced economy, and provides one of the most important experiences that many young people will have in their lives. By 2020 though, many more will be hoping that the spotlight has at least begun to dim.
Emran Mian, Director of the Social Market Foundation.
Article first appeared in the Hobsons University EMEA Conference 2015 magazine.