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Advance HE/Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) Breakfast seminar: How should the higher education sector prepare for the forthcoming general election?

The panel - made up of Lord Norton of Louth, a Conservative peer and Professor of government at Hull University; Professor Nick Pearce, director of the Institute for Policy Research at Bath University and former head of the No. 10 Policy Unit under Gordon Brown; and Rachel Woolf, founder of Policy First and a former government advisor - offered insights into the position of UK higher education (HE) in the run up to the general election and the sector’s prospects, challenges and opportunities post-election. 


  • Universities individually can make an impact by getting in touch with local politicians; the starting point for discussions is what the university can do for the constituency, its constituents, and the local economy (Lord Norton)
  • Students generate wealth and support local businesses. Universities are important local employers. They should point out how research can bring practical benefits that people can relate to eg Covid vaccine, energy efficiency, flood resilience (Lord Norton)
  • Schools are the priority when it comes to education funding. HE needs to think of policies that are deliverable and low-hanging fruit in cost terms (for instance, the case has been made in the Lords for devoting more of the foreign aid budget to international scholarships) (Lord Norton)
  • New divides in the electorate are reflected in people’s attitudes to HE. Universities are being drawn into culture wars with the association of academia with liberal left “woke” ideas leading to challenging the expansion of HE. From the other side of the political spectrum university education is seen as a privilege in a knowledge economy and the hierarchy of esteem and status it supports, while de-valuing working-class occupations (Professor Pearce)
  • Pressures on the current funding model include the freeze in tuition fees, restrictions on international students, research funding that does not cover full costs and diminishing graduate premiums. The funding system does not allow for the strategic management of the sector. Individual departments and institutions are at risk in ways that could have been managed in the past. No political party has an incentive to propose a fully costed plan for HE before the election (Professor Peace)
  • Post election, higher education will be very well represented if the current polls pan out; many of the MPs in the shadow cabinet occupy seats with large student populations (Professor Pearce)
  • Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’ speech this week had passages that pointed to the importance of HE to Labour’s economic growth mission eg productivity, regional policy, export performance (Professor Pearce)
  • In the event of an autumn general election, an incoming government may decide on a one year rolling settlement to buy some time for a fuller comprehensive spending review, giving time to develop an HE funding model answer (Professor Pearce)
  • Labour has decided that fiscal conservatism and competence is central to maintaining its lead; that rules out spending more or significantly raising taxes, and HE is not top of any spending list (Rachel Woolf)
  • For the Conservative Party, one tactic will be to seek to find issues that make Labour look disunited. The electorate might not care much about “culture wars” but if situations arise on campus, they will be all over the newspapers (Rachel Woolf)
  • Universities have an opportunity to place themselves more centrally in terms of the growth and productivity agenda which will be a major obsession for the next few parliaments (Rachel Woolf)
  • Universities need to think about how their general R&D story can be made as practical and transferable as possible and how it links up to a government that will be more active in how it thinks about the state and the state’s partnership with business, while also having no money (Rachel Woolf)

Implications for governance:

The panel’s reflections on the sector’s position in the hierarchy of political priorities is sobering if not surprising: higher education is not high on the list and is not seen as a vote-winner. 

According to speakers, there is no incentive for the various parties to produce fully-costed higher education plans as part of manifesto commitments, so universities should not expect to see substantive policies this side of the general election. 

The Labour Party has embraced fiscal conservatism, says Rachel Woolf; making it unlikely to embrace, for instance, the Sutton Trust’s call this week to reintroduce means tested maintenance grants and increase the size of maintenance loans. 

Even post-election, the message is that governing boards should not expect any  change in the challenging financial environment in the short-term. An autumn election may well see the party at the helm rolling over current spending settlements for a year rather than putting a new spending review out in April 2025.

Governors may also be concerned about a warning from the panel that universities may only be a feature in election campaigns “in a way that they do not want to be”, such as media reports on culture wars. They may wish to heed Rachel Woolf’s advice that universities should spend “a lot of time” thinking about how to manage these issues if they emerge. Given the potential for reputational damage, governing boards may want to be assured that procedures are in place to deal swiftly with such eventualities.

With an intractable national picture, the panel’s advice to the sector in the run up to the election is to look locally to make an impact. In an election year, individual universities and their representatives, including governors, have an opportunity to engage with politicians of all political colours to underline their institution’s contribution as a significant local employer, host to thousands of students who spend money locally, and partner to local and regional businesses. 

A key takeaway message from the panel is to “make your friends before you need them” and in discussions with politicians “make it local, make it tangible and think about what you can do for them”.

Professor Pearce made the point that Labour’s agenda of growth and productivity is one where universities can be important players and make their presence felt. According to a 2022 report by the Resolution Foundation, a 1 per cent rise in the graduate share of the population is associated with a 0.6 per cent rise in productivity.

In areas such as R&D, regional growth, initiatives with metro mayors and partnerships with business, universities are well places to take advantage of any new opportunities post-election. 

The training of public sector workers, particularly where there are shortages, is a key function at many universities and one which could potentially expand (and is likely to be seen by the public in a positive light). Filling skills gaps, working with further education to deliver the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) and developing apprenticeships – an area with a high rating among the electorate -- are other areas of opportunity. 

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