Ahead of the General Election on 7th May, The Journal explores what the major political parties’ plans are for higher education. Will Labour put a halt to skyrocketing tuition fees? What does the UK Independence Party think about international students? Does anyone know what the Conservative Party are planning?
The last General Election had a huge impact on the landscape of higher education. Few will forget the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg reneging on his promise to eradicate tuition fees and promptly standing aside to allow the Conservatives to almost triple them. Fees were raised from just over £3,000 to a whopping £9,000.
With the general election just months away, higher education and tuitions are once again a feisty battleground for the major parties. Ahead of the release of the parties’ respective manifestos, we have analysed their announcements on higher education and asked the opinion of the Director of London School of Economics and Political Science, Craig Calhoun.
Calhoun sees financial incentives as being key to parties’ success amongst the nation’s youth at the polls:
‘Issues of fees and financial aid must loom large for students and their families. I’m sorry no party sees a way to provide major government funding for student access. High fees will be a barrier unless combined with financial assistance. Unfortunately in order to court middle class votes, parties seem inclined not to target support at the less well off. Simply capping fees will mean taxing the working class to provide cheap spaces for elites.’
Labour to Cut Tuition Fees
One of the biggest announcements in the run-up to the election so far has been Labour’s promise to slash tuition fees to £6,000. The plan which would reportedly cost the government £2.9bn has been questioned by vice-chancellors at various universities as it would leave institutions without the funding they need to run efficiently.
While the Labour proposal may sound attractive to students, current Chancellor George Osborne stated that the money taken from the country pension pot, which is needed to fulfil the promise, would penalise long-serving public servants. However, apart from this the party currently in power have been fairly silent on the subject of higher education.
The traditionally smaller parties have claimed considerably more of the spotlight this year than in previous elections. This is amidst widespread disenchantment with the two biggest parties and the likelihood of another hung parliament. As such, it is worth discussing the attitude towards higher education of the Green Party and UKIP.
UKIP and International Students
UKIP have perhaps enjoyed more of the limelight than most in the election run-up. With the parties’ prominent views on immigration we look with interest at their policy on international students coming to the UK. In contrast to the parties anti-immigration stance the party appear to be in favour of those coming into the country on a student visa. The party’s deputy leader Paul Nuttall had this to say to the Times Higher Education Supplement: ‘we believe that students from around the world should be encouraged to come here to study in our first-class facilities. We do not feel the need to add student numbers into the country’s migration figures because they are usually here on student visas, unless they are from within the EU.’
Calhoun is keen to point out what the right wing agenda towards immigration would mean to international students long-term plans: ‘Anti-immigrant policies pandering to populist voters have already been a problem in the current government. Labour has not distinguished itself as forcefully from the Conservatives on this as it might have done. So it will probably stay difficult to get post-study work visas – hurting the UK economy as well as international students.
‘A different issue is the possibility of Britain leaving the UK, which would of course be problematic for international students among others. Here voters will recognise that two parties produce most of the push for this.’
The Green Party’s Radical Promise
The Green Party have also gained a swell in membership of late and have traditionally being vocal in their support of HE. In the run-up to the general election they have capitalised on this support with their proposal to abolish tuition fees. With this in mind, Calhoun sees them as the most student-friendly of the parties but is unsure of how they plan to pay for their radical promise. On the whole, the LSE Director is not too hopeful about the outcome of the election and what it will mean for students and the country’s higher education provision:
‘Like so many others, I predict no majority party and a coalition. While it may be the case that as coalition partners the LibDems have moderated extreme Conservative policies in the current government, I don’t think we can count on such a positive effect next time.
‘I worry that government will be weak and directions unclear – which would be bad for higher education and the country. And I worry that no government will really come to terms with jobs, inequality, or the balancing quality and cost higher education – which would be bad for students.’
Whatever happens between now the 7th May, we are guaranteed to hear a lot more on the subject of higher education. The two questions you will have to ask yourself are: ‘Who do I agree with?’ and ‘Do I believe them?’