A post-election blog

After an election result that surprised many, we have a single party in power with a majority instead of the expected coalition or minority government. How easy the size of the majority will make it for legislation to be passed is to be seen, but it is worth revisiting the Conservative Party manifesto to remind ourselves what their plans are that will affect Higher Education, and how we might respond to this.

International Students

We will reform the student visa system with new measures to tackle abuse and reduce the numbers of students overstaying once their visas expire. Our action will include clamping down on the number of so-called ‘satellite campuses’ opened in London by universities located elsewhere in the UK, and reviewing the highly trusted sponsor system for student visas. And as the introduction of exit checks will allow us to place more responsibility on visa sponsors for migrants who overstay, we will introduce targeted sanctions for those colleges or businesses that fail to ensure that migrants comply with the terms of their visa.

It would appear that students are still likely to be included in net migration figures, which potentially damaging to university incomes. Equally concerning is the line above which is transferring the responsibility to visa sponsors (ie universities) for those who overstay. This is a significant change to the role of a sponsor – being responsible while a student is with us is understandable. Being liable for sanctions of what individuals choose to do post course is concerning, and the detail will be needed. I expect that UUK and the mission groups will continue to press the case that international students are a benefit to the universities in which they study, and bring economic benefits to the communities in which they live.


With a referendum on EU membership to take place in 2017, universities are already stepping up their campaign to show the importance of Europe for both research funding and students. UUK have already started their campaigning. Despite the incoming Prime Minister being pro-Europe, there are significant numbers of sceptics in his own party, and we shouldn’t dismiss the large numbers across the country who voted for UKIP, and who would vote to leave Europe. This is an area where we can expect to see individual universities, as well as their mission groups and representative bodies, lobbying hard.

Tuition Fees

The Coalition government raised the cap on tuition fees to £9000, with the outcome that nearly all universities in the public sector charge this, or very close to it.

From the manifesto we have:

Our reforms to university funding mean you do not have to pay anything towards tuition while studying, and only start paying back if you earn over £21,000 per year. We will ensure the continuing success and stability of these reforms, so that the interests of both students and taxpayers are fairly represented. We will also introduce a national postgraduate loan system for taught masters and PhD courses.

As part of electioneering, the Labour Party suggested that the Conservatives would raise the fee cap to £11,500. No-one has acknowledged this, however a rise in fees was not ruled out by William Hague.

The implication for individual universities might depend on where they sit in terms of league tables, and attractiveness to full time undergraduate students. There will be those who will be able to show that the market allows them to charge an increased amount. Others, however, might be challenged more on the value for money that they provide, and so we may see a wider range of fees being charged.  This was the intention when the £9k cap was introduced, so maybe a higher cap will encourage more marketisation.

It’s pleasing to see  a commitment to loan schemes for postgraduate study, bu these will lead to high marginal tax rates for those who take them, possibly limiting the attractiveness to just the debt-averse and likely high earners.

 Learning and Teaching

We will ensure that universities deliver the best possible value for money to students: we will introduce a framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality; encourage universities to offer more two-year courses;

Articles have already appeared in the press about the idea of a teaching REF”. It will be interesting to see how teaching quality is to be assessed. Current tools such as the NSS only provide a proxy, and I can’t imagine a return to the days of QAA visits with teaching observations, at least not if the universities’ remit remains in BIS.

We will encourage the development of online education as a tool for students, whether studying independently or in our universities.

David Willetts was very keen on MOOCs, and promoted the work of FutureLearn. An expansion of online education, more usefully described as technology enhanced or supported learning, is a no-brainer – technology will continue to play an increasing part in learning, as in so many other industries and services

Data for prospective students

….require more data to be openly available to potential students so that they can make decisions informed by the career paths of past graduates.

This is a concerning one – if you are a university whose students are highly employable, and who get the cream of the graduate jobs, then the data to prospective students which can be garnered from Student Loan Company records as well as tax receipts, will be a benefit. If, however, you are the kind of university whose mission is more focused on widening participation, on teaching students who have low social capital, then this development in data availability will provide no favours. I would expect million+ to be paying particular attention to this, as the reduction of university education to something that is measured as nothing more than an individual economic benefit is a diminution of what we actually do. The recent work by McGettigan is worth reading on this.

 And more generally

Through the Nurse Review of research councils, we will seek to ensure that the UK continues to support world-leading science, and invests public money in the best possible way.

There is always the question of how well the science and research budgets will be ring-fenced, particularly with the further cuts to come. It may be they will be protected in cash terms, if not against inflationary pressures.


The final big question is where the remit universities will sit. BIS is going to be asked to make major savings, and it could be that universities move to the Department for Education. Those observations of teaching and an Ofsted style regime might be more likely if this is the case.

Savings will have to be made, and one area that is vulnerable is the money for widening participation, or the Student Opportunity Fund. This will disproportionately affect million+ universities, although the justification for its removal will no doubt point to research that shows that raising fees has not reduced the numbers applying from WP households, although from the BBC website:

“It is incontrovertible that growth in participation in higher education by disadvantaged young people is disproportionately to lower tariff providers and through using BTECs,” says the Ucas admission service’s analysis of the 2014 intake.

What do universities do?

If I knew the answer to that, I’d be doing a different job! But these are my starters:

  • Market research to identify fees that could be borne by the market
  • Internal benchmarking of employability and graduate salaries (where possible) to pre-empt new data sets
  • Impact assessment of increasing fees vs possible reducing numbers
  • Impact assessment of removal of SOF, and what fee level would be needed to replace the income
  • A better understanding of student entry characteristics, including entry tariff and type, leading to learning and teaching approaches that are tailored to enable these students to succeed
  • Developing a strong narrative about the benefits of being in Europe for the HE sector
  • Developing a strong narrative about the benefits of international students to the HE sector – and making friends will all MPs who have a university in their constituency to make sure they are fully aware.
  • Identify internal mechanisms to demonstrate teaching quality – better for the sector to develop this itself.

What is still not clear is how universities might be regulated, how quality mechanisms will operate in future, and how the regulatory and quality regime will be changed to encompass the more diverse range of providers.

All in all, there’s going to be a lot of change – but we already knew that, didn’t we?