Higher education and the election: the main party manifestos compared

Professor GR Evans takes a look at what the three major political parties have planned for higher education


For those of us interested in higher education, one of the most eagerly-awaited aspects of the manifestos was how they would deal with the recommendations of the Augar Review into higher education funding.

The review had been commissioned by Theresa May in February 2018, partly in response to growing public indignation about the rise in undergraduate tuition fees _ though its remit also included further education.

When the review was published in May 2019, with its recommendations to reduce tuition fees to £7,500 a year, the government’s initial response was to put it on the back burner. So what do the parties have to say about it now?

The Conservatives’ manifesto promises to think about it:

“The Augar Review made thoughtful recommendations on tuition fee levels, the balance of funding between universities, further education and apprenticeships and adult learning, and we will consider them carefully.”

Labour says it will follow the Augar recommendation to freeze tuition fees:

“In line with the recommendations of the government’s ‘Augar review’ we have assumed a three-year freeze from 2020-21 to 2022-23 on per pupil funding.”

It will also:

“Reinstate maintenance grants for the poorest students, ensuring that living costs are not a barrier to disadvantaged young people studying at university.”

The Liberal Democrats, keeping cautiously to the fringes of the tuition fees question, say they will:

“…establish a review of higher education finance in the next parliament to consider any necessary reforms in the light of the latest evidence of the impact of the existing financing system on access, participation and quality, and make sure there are no more retrospective raising of rates or selling-off of loans to private companies.”


Grade inflation, access and lifelong learning

Most of the Conservatives’ commitments are to do with teaching and widening access:

  • We will look at the interest rates on loan repayments with a view to reducing the burden of debt on students.
  • We also will continue to explore ways to tackle the problem of grade inflation and low-quality courses, and improve the application and offer system for undergraduate students.
  • Our approach will be underpinned by a commitment to fairness, quality of learning and teaching, and access.
  • We will also strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities and continue to focus on raising standards.
  • We will strengthen universities and colleges’ civic role.
  • We will invest in local adult education and require the Office for Students to look at universities’ success in increasing access across all ages, not just young people entering full-time undergraduate degrees.

Perhaps the last item represents a return to the call for ‘life-long learning’ which seems to have dropped out of recent headlines?

The Liberal Democrats suggested giving everyone  a £10,000 ‘skills wallet’ to be used for retraining during a lifetime.

Labour says it will:

introduce post-qualification admissions in higher education, and work with universities to ensure contextual admissions are used across the system.”


Further education funding

The manifestos tackle further education separately, leaving a puzzle still unresolved – where to draw the line between higher and further education.

Conservatives are:

“investing almost £2 billion to upgrade the entire further education college estate. And we’ll also have 20 Institutes of Technology, which connect high-quality teaching in science, technology, engineering and maths to business and industry.”

Liberal Democrats say:

“Further Education is vital route to learning and we will invest to support it”


“Further Education colleges have a vital role in giving opportunities to young people who want to pursue vocational study, and Liberal Democrats will end the neglect they have suffered for too long.

Specifically Liberal Democrats will:

“invest an extra £1 billion in Further Education funding, including by refunding colleges for the VAT they pay.”


Higher Education funding

Labour, claiming that the Conservatives have left universities at the mercies of “market forces”,   promises to:

“…end the failed free-market experiment in higher education, abolish tuition fees and bring back maintenance grants.”

This would cost £7.2 billion.

Despite warnings that bringing back maintenance grants might prove a ‘nasty scam’ Labour intends to ‘ensure maintenance grants get more generous and universities have the funding that they need’ and, more broadly:

“…fundamentally rethink the assessment of research and teaching quality, and develop a new funding formula.”

The Liberal Democrats propose a fresh review of higher education finance.   They hint that they would prefer a graduate tax . They also promise to bring back maintenance grants, “ensuring that living costs are not a barrier to disadvantaged young people studying at university”.


Cross-funding of teaching and research in higher education

Augar proposed a reduction to £7,500 a year of the maximum undergraduate tuition fee for England.  That triggered headlines warning that at that level a number of higher education providers would become financially unsustainable. It was already becoming clear that the Office for Students, refusing to register a number of providers deemed financially unsustainable, was facing litigation from disappointed applicants, mainly newcomers to the scene.

However, the Select Committee on Science and Technology, taking evidence for its report on Augar, discovered serious strains in the balancing of budgets even in traditional teaching-and-research universities. The Committee was concerned  that though traditionally, the dual-funding system had “supported the research community well”, the failure to increase Quality Related (QR) funding since 2010, had “led to a deficit in funding which universities have had to plug through cross-subsidies”.

This was the element of the old block grant which had paid for research infrastructure, and was now the responsibility of Research England within UKRI. The element of the block which had paid for teaching had been almost entirely replaced by tuition-fee income. The old virement within the block grant was no longer possible. It was found that the cross-funding now mainly involved using tuition-fee income to pay for research. In evidence, David Sweeney, then Executive Chair of Research England within UKRI, admitted that “it is not within the capability of UKRI to make up funds without further investment from the Government”.

This was happening in a climate of student demand to be told in detail how tuition-fee income was being spent by their universities.  The Select Committee:

  • “found that the Augar Review did not did not take a holistic approach to the funding of universities and made no attempt to assess the potential impact of its recommended reductions in student fees on the funding of research”
  • The Select Committee reporting on the Augar Review supported calls on the government to increase QR funding annually “by at least the rate of inflation”, until the government made a commitment to “raising the UK’s investment in research and development, from all sources, to 2.4% of GDP by 2027”.

Talking hard cash for research, the Conservatives are:

“…committing to the fastest ever increase in domestic public R&D spending, including in basic science research to meet our target of 2.4 per cent of GDP being spent on R&D across the economy.”


Project funding for research

The parties’ treatment of research veers between the broad and the technical, sometimes joining it with teaching, sometimes not, and sometimes loosely including non-academic research:

The Conservatives say:

“We need to use science and research to unite and level up our country, giving people opportunity and hope.”

Labour will “fundamentally rethink the assessment of research and teaching quality”, and “develop a new funding formula for higher education”, one that will ensure “all public HE institutions have adequate funding for teaching and research”.

Liberal Democrats say:

“…the UK has some outstanding universities and research institutions and we need to build on their success.”

There is enthusiasm for encouraging research which will be of practical and commercial and social use, to be funded not only by the research councils within UKRI but by charities and by commercial funders as at present.

The Conservatives suggest government direction by way of the choice of preferred  research topics:

We will invest in world-class computing and health data systems that can aid research, such as the ground-breaking genetic sequencing carried out at the UK Biobank, Genomics England and the new Accelerating the Detection of Disease project, which has the potential to transform diagnosis and treatment. We will use government procurement to support new ideas and new companies. We will continue to support charities which have helped to transform our public services.” 


New and strengthened supervisory bodies?

The Conservatives say:

Some of this new spending will go to a new agency for high-risk, high-payoff research, at arm’s length from government.” 

The Conservative manifesto does not describe this new body but press coverage suggest that what is proposed – and hinted at in the Queen’s Speech ­­– is a “UK Darpa”, a counterpart of the US Defense Advanced Projects Agency.  That would operate outside UKRI and it is not clear how far it would or could be independent of Government.

Labour promises a new overarching strategic body for the whole of higher education:

“We will transform the Office for Students from a market regulator to a body of the National Education Service, acting in the public interest.”

It is not clear whether it envisages including academic research.

More modestly, the Liberal Democrats plan to:

“…raise standards in universities by strengthening the Office for Students, to make sure all students receive a high-quality education.”