What the new Government means for UK universities

On May 6th 2010 Great Britain decided to give no one of its main political parties a clear mandate to govern it, and we were instead left with a hung parliament. Our constitution then invited the parties’ leaders to discuss their options in the backrooms of Whitehall, and eventually we ended up with a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

But what implications does this tumultuous shake-up of British politics have for students in higher education?

The Conservatives’  manifesto pledges 10,000 more university places for the academic year 2010-11 and encourages the formation of ‘joint university-business research and development institutes’,  slamming the previous Labour government for ‘consigning a generation to  an uncertain future of worklessness and dependency’. The Lib Dems’ manifesto’s figurehead university policy was, on the other hand, the eventual abolition of tuition fees.

However, in failing to receive a majority, both parties have had to sideline many of these ambitious policy ideas, and have diluted them into more vague promises, mostly dependent on the result of Lord Browne’s review on higher education funding.

The two parties have published a document entitled ‘The Coalition: our programme for government’, which in its section regarding ‘Universities and Further Education’ details the government’s very broad intentions to ‘increase social mobility’, ‘take into account the impact on student debt’, ‘ensure a properly funded university sector’, improve the quality of teaching’, ‘advance scholarship’  and ‘attract a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds’. The document also seems to imply the formation of a more centralised league table system for higher education institutions, pledging to ‘publish more information on the costs, graduate earnings, and student satisfaction of different university courses’.

The ‘programme’  also notes that if the Browne review suggests measures unacceptable to the Liberal Democrat MPs, they have permission to abstain from voting. The review recently proposed that, after 2013 (after most of us will have graduated) tuition fees should rise £1000 per year for several years (specifically at Russell Group and other ‘prestigious’ universities). This is an effective removal of the tuition fees cap established in 2006-7. Interestingly, the Deputy Prime Minister himself, Nick Clegg, and his shadow-chancellor and current Business Secretary Vince Cable, are both opposed to any rise in tuition fees, being signatories on a pre-election pledge to this effect, so the impending votes resulting from this review in Parliament will be divisive to say the least. See Vikki Vile’s article ‘Analysis: The Uncertain Future of Tuition Fees’, for more detail.

The contradictory and currently undecided ideas of the two parties will be the source of great anxiety to all university students, but particularly those who are to enter university this coming academic year. With admissions rising 16.5% on last year, admissions service UCAS stating it is highly likely approximately 200,000 students will not receive a university place this year, tens of thousands of whom will have achieved straight ‘A’ grades (they also state that 40,000 of this year’s applicants are re-applicants, having applied unsuccessfully last year). Professor David Green, vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester, claims the figure could even reach 250,000. This is over double the figure of merely two years ago.

Doing nothing to mitigate this problem, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (responsible for universities) was told by new Chancellor George Osborne on May 25th that his comprehensive deficit plan’s spending cuts include scrapping the 10,000 university places promised in his original manifesto, saving £200m.

Our new government has certainly got its work cut out.

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