Published: October 20, 2014
“HE has been spoiled by the obvious passion of David Willetts and should get used to a Minister dispassionately administering as he would in any other Whitehall posting”
Thanks to the unprecedented combination of variables that include UKIP, the Greens, SNP and lack of public enthusiasm for any of the three established political parties it would be very brave of anyone to predict the outcome of next year’s general election. That said, we’re already seeing signs of a shift in political influence when it comes to higher education policy.
For years the sector has been accustomed to David Willetts as the policy pacesetter, a rare example of a politician with a genuine enthusiasm for the sector over which he has responsibility. Higher education seemed the most natural of fits for the man nicknamed ‘Two Brains’. The Labour MPs given the role of shadowing Willetts throughout most of his tenure provided diligent, and at times energetic opposition, but rarely seemed as engaged with the intricacies of the sector as the Minister. The situation looks to have been reversed following the end of Willetts’ tenure at BIS.
Following the summer’s reshuffle I wrote that Willetts replacement, Greg Clark, could well use his newly combined responsibilities for cities and universities to usher in a new era where higher education was explicitly aligned with the nation’s economic strategy. I argued at the time that this could see renewed attention being given to aspects of universities’ missions beyond the teaching of undergraduates, with an emphasis on research impact and knowledge transfer. It now seems that my optimism may have been misplaced. Following a relatively superficial speech to UUK’s conference last month the new Minister was not exactly ubiquitous at the smattering of HE policy debates across the fringe of the Conservative Party conference. Indeed, at the one event he did take part in Clark more or less confirmed that HE was not at the heart of his thinking.
None of this is to say that Mr Clark will not prove to be an effective servant of the sector. In some ways HE has been spoiled by the obvious passion of David Willetts and should get used to a Minister dispassionately administering as he would in any other Whitehall posting. It is unlikely though that Clark will passionately drive forward a vision for the sector.
Instead, and regardless of next year’s electoral outcome, we may need to consider Labour’s Liam Byrne as Willetts’ heir. The two men have much in common (beyond the obvious follicle challenges). Both have emerged from their respective parties’ political operation – Willetts from Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit and Byrne from New Labour’s business campaigning operation. Both have written thoughtful books tackling major issues – Willetts on intergenerational disadvantage in ‘The Pinch’ and Byrne on the rise of Asian economies in ‘Turning to Face the East’. And both landed in the HE hot seat as a demotion reflecting their misalignment with the sensibilities of many in their parties– Willetts on grammar schools and Byrne’s perceived pro-business sympathies.
Since his appointment it had been Byrne, not Greg Clark, thinking publically about the future of HE, predominantly through the ‘Robbins Rebooted’ pamphlet and science and technology green paper. He’s also at the heart of one of the hottest topics in HE policy: how will Labour ensure universities continue to be well funded while lowering tuition fees? For a few years now Labour has had a holding policy of lowering fees to £6000, with the shortfall to institutions being made up of reallocated Treasury funds. But, a formalisation of this for next year’s manifesto was reportedly blocked (by Byrne among others) from being announced at this year’s Labour Party conference due to the full fiscal implications being as yet unclear. More recently, Byrne has been upfront about his personal sympathy for a graduate tax model. One way or another, Labour will go to the election with a promise of a new undergraduate funding model. There will be no Browne review style cross-party kicking into long grass this time. The only problem is, Labour hasn’t yet found a model that makes both electoral and fiscal sense.
This is where the sector comes in, and why it is good news that Byrne is so engaged in HE. Vice Chancellors, mission groups and other policy wonks have an opportunity to offer solutions to a senior politician all too keen to listen to what they have to say. Solid, well thought through recommendations on how Labour can lessen the burden on students while securing the resources of institutions are likely to receive a positive hearing. And, if they are strong enough to inform Labour Party policy they could of course be implemented in the event of a Labour win next May, or at the very least prompt a response from a disinterested Minister otherwise happy to maintain the status quo.
A change-minded opposition spokesperson with a keen interest in the sector presents an interesting opportunity for HE stakeholders keen to have an influence. Now is the time to make the most of it.
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