Unlike, seemingly, most people who work in higher education, I’m pleased the two Conservative leadership candidates have now turned their minds to the issue. It means that, despite growing tensions between universities and Tory politicians, both sides realise they need each other. You can’t have a world-class university system without billions of pounds of public funding and you can’t raise productivity, tackle skill shortages or deliver innovation without successful universities.
There have even been one or two quite original thoughts emanating from the two leadership rivals. Liz Truss’s idea that all high-performing A-Level students should be entitled to an Oxbridge interview is small beer, given roughly 1 per cent of all undergraduates go to Oxbridge. But I’ve worked in higher education policy for over 15 years and cannot immediately recall it being seriously proposed by a front-rank politician before. So let’s be grateful for small mercies.
This weekend’s newspapers were full of Rishi Sunak’s package, however. It includes blocking access to degrees that don’t lead to higher salaries. In many ways, this merely continues existing policy and is absolutely right that genuinely bad university courses should be rooted out via regulation — no student should be sold a pup. But anyone who thinks a low graduate salary indicates a worthless course should chat to a nurse.
Sunak’s other big idea of delivering parity of esteem between vocational and academic education is as old as houses. It’s been promised by politicians of all stripes for decades, but there is a huge obstacle: the Millennium Cohort Study shows 97 per cent of mothers of young children want their offspring to go to university, plus employers want graduates more than ever. So, parity of esteem is just not going to happen, or at least not until wealthy people in power — like Rishi Sunak — are as content for their own children to go to the local further education (FE) college as they are for them to enrol at a university.
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Sunak’s other education ideas, like a broader curriculum in the last two years of school (making it mandatory for students to take English and Maths in post-16 education), are more interesting. England does have a very narrow sixth-form curriculum relative to other places. Even politicians such as Tony Blair at the height of power have shied away from changing that because of the “gold-standard” reputation of A-Levels. Perhaps A-Levels are only “bronze-standard” after their battering by Covid, and so can be tweaked more easily? Yet if everyone is to do Maths for longer, for example, you need to tackle the teacher supply crisis first and that will mean recognising that those modern universities that have done the bulk of teacher training are your ally rather than your enemy.
Conservatives lost power in 1997 partly because their multiple reforms had offended so many groups that there were not enough people left to vote for them. As a former special adviser to a Conservative Minister for Universities, I worry that there are too many Conservatives around today who believe (as a new piece on Conservative Home argues) that “a Conservative university dream-world” would include “fewer universities” and a “far smaller number of students”. In fact, a Conservative approach would mean the opposite: helping more people meet their aspirations for bettering themselves through higher education. You don’t win the votes of older people by blocking their aspiration to own a home, and you don’t win the votes of younger people by blocking their access to education.
There are two sorts of Tories who understand universities. First, there are those with a major university presence in their constituency. Nicky Morgan, MP for Loughborough from 2010 to 2019, is a good example. But such people are few and far between because universities tend to be in cities, and cities (including their student residents) tend to vote Labour. The second group are those who have made an effort to get to know the sector, often as a result of having ministerial responsibility for it — people like David Willetts, Jo Johnson and Chris Skidmore MP. Neither of the current leadership candidates can claim to be in either of these two camps so, once in power, they will need to listen more closely to their colleagues who are.