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HE: Political Risks & Issues 2020 – 1/3

by Shaun Horan | Jan 23, 2020 | News, Strategy & Transformation

So, we have started a new year, and a new decade. The first half of that looks like it might have a Conservative government in stable power (although don’t underestimate the power of Brexit to take more unexpected turns).

What should HE be thinking about the politics of the first half of the roaring 20s?

What happens to universities over the next few years will be substantially influenced at the political level by two things:

  • Conservative success in constituencies that have in the past mostly voted Labour.
  • The Conservative Party Manifesto.

The first of those will prompt more investment in those constituencies than would otherwise have been the case. It will mean pressure on universities to do more to fulfil their “place” obligations through wider civic engagement, closer relationships with schools and colleges.

The Conservative Manifesto

The Manifesto (p37) says positive things about the Augar Review. Whether the Augar fee recommendations are taken onboard is unknown, but they could very well address the issue of the balance of funding between universities, further education, apprenticeships and lifelong learning. The last of those may be reinforced by the OfS looking at universities’ success in increasing access across all ages.

Page 40 in the manifesto also makes some heavyweight comments on research, to which universities should pay attention in terms both of their own research strategies and where funding for this is likely to come from in future.

Education for adults or children?

Running through some of the points above, there is clearly a need for more attention to be paid to adult learning. But, looking earlier in life, universities should also be active in any review of schools and colleges which seek to do a better job of guiding young people into the right kind of education from, say, 14 onwards. There is also the need, well-documented in Augar, to fill an obvious gap in our present arrangements for delivering level 5 and 6 qualifications. Apprenticeships are not doing the job properly.

Many are already well advanced in some of the above areas, for example taking “place” seriously and working with other local education providers, but many are not and would do well to get themselves ahead of a changing game.

Government and Opposition

With the size of their current majority, and an opposition that is in rebuilding mode, the Government will think it has little to fear from the Opposition. We might therefore expect some surprises from influential advisers that could be quite radical for the sector. So called elite universities might have more of a struggle to be heard in that environment.

If Labour is able to mount an effective opposition, the Government will have to keep its promises to the North or lose all those red wall seats, especially if Brexit doesn’t deliver what is hoped for and results in increased unemployment in Brexit-voting areas.

Added to this, the devolved nations will need a great deal of attention and tact to hold off Indyref 2, avoid a border poll in NI under the Good Friday agreement and retain Conservative gains in Wales. Also, if a candidate such as Keir Starmer is elected for the Labour party, we might expect a progressive alliance since he will be credible to rally around given that probably only combined opposition parties can form a Government in 2024.

HE or FE?

Overall, we can expect much more discussion of investment in the 50% who don’t go to university, especially in a skills-hungry, post-Brexit economy. Colleges and employers may be the beneficiaries, but universities will want to be part of this, and will need to introduce more degree apprenticeships and related qualifications. At what point do FE colleges and more-vocational universities look so much like each other that community universities are formed? Devolved mayors will also have a bigger say in coordinating provision strategically.

Fees and final thoughts

It seems unlikely that we will see a headline cut in fees, although that can’t be ruled out, but fees will probably be held at the current level for the Parliament. The Russell Group might be protected because of research, but Chris Milward seems serious about fair access, and we might expect more contextual admissions.

Overall, it is difficult to see institutions being exactly as they are now in the future. Indeed, it is difficult to see some surviving in their current forms. It may be those that embrace change early will thrive, or at the very least survive.

The good news is that whichever area/s you’re currently wrangling with, Halpin can help. We have senior-level experts who are specialists across all areas of university leadership. If you want our thinking and action alongside yours, get in touch.

This is the first article in a series of three where we discuss risks and issues for 2020 and beyond in higher education. In our second article, we focus on governance and strategy – check it out here.

Shaun Horan – Joint CEO of Halpin, and Tim Melville Ross CBE – Halpin Consulting Fellow