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Public Policy|Southampton

Conference special: CPC16

 

Conservative Conference – Amber Alert

This year’s Conservative Conference has been debating the issues of the day in Birmingham this week. Or at least the issue of the day, because almost everything was tinged with Brexit, more so as the first day of the conference was dedicated to the topic. As usual, the Conference drew a dedicated, rag-tag band of HE policy-chasers, myself included, keen to hear what Government Ministers and HE-enthusiastic MPs were going to say about Brexit and Higher Education. Add in the excitement of the Higher Education and Research Bill going through Parliament and this, surely, would be a conference to remember?

As always, it never quite turns out that way. At the Labour Conference, politicians spoke in depth about the issues, but mainly to explain what the Government was doing wrong (most things, it turns out). In Birmingham this week, Jo Johnson appeared at one or two fringe events, but there was little serious challenge to the HE Bill, with at best people expressing concern that the metrics for the Teaching Excellence Framework were not actually going to measure teaching excellence. Some of the best points were made by Sorana Vieru of the NUS, who argued convincingly (at several Fringe events) that a market for HE which allowed low quality new entrants to enter and – worse – exit the market could be a disaster for students. Who would take them on if their institution collapsed mid-way through their course? And what value was a degree from an institution which had gone bust?

There were a large number of HE fringe events, and Johnson had been invited to most of them. Whilst he did some, his indefatigable stand-in was Ben Howlett, MP for Bath and a member of the Higher Education Bill Committee, whom I had the pleasure of listening to at least 4 times. He was clearly knowledgeable about the sector, and was very clear about the contribution of the two Bath universities to the prosperity of that city. As someone who was not a member of the Government he was able to say more, knowing that it was merely a personal opinion. He argued strongly that Brexit meant that we should be looking to expand UK HE as an export industry, a key part of the Government’s Industrial Strategy.

Which meant in turn that an issue which the HE fringe-followers returned to several times was that of student visas and migration. This surely was an issue in which the Government could help the sector? Where a relaxation of the visa rules and a change of tone could help us deliver a world-leading service to a growing international market? Surely it was time to end the arguments between the Business and Education Departments on the one hand and the Home Office on the other, and support this successful UK industry?

So step in Amber Rudd, our new Home Secretary, for her first conference speech in that role - though if you close your eyes, the words could have come from her predecessor (and may, indeed, have done so). Far from a change of tone, we now have to look forward to a consultation on tightening the rules for international students, supposedly welcoming the “brightest and best” but considering whether the “student immigration rules should be tailored to the quality of the course and the quality of the educational institution”. It’s fair to say Ms Rudd’s plans were not met with universal enthusiasm from the ranks of the weary HE wonks still making the rounds of the conference.

With the research part of Universities’ business the remit of the Department of Business, Innovation and Industrial Strategy, and the education part now returned to the Department for Education, there were two other Secretaries of State giving conference speeches with the potential for nourishing titbits for the HE watchers. But it was pretty thin gruel. Greg Clark had one sentence which mentioned universities. It was a very positive sentence, though, and contained no further burdens placed upon the sector, so that’s something. Justine Greening had slightly more to say about higher education, though the speech was dominated by grammar schools and social mobility.

The final day of conference is dominated by the Leader’s speech, with no fringe events or other distractions. The conference hall is packed with the party faithful, but most of the HE policy-chasers like me have already headed home, escaping the madness for another year, and contemplating just what the whole thing is for.

 

Gavin Costigan

Director, Public Policy|Southampton

@CostiganGavin

 

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