Where next for universities under Conservative reforms?

Beyond the police cordon in Manchester, universities watch with baited breath. Martin Rickett/PA

The Conservative Party is in Manchester for its annual conference, a gesture that some in the city view as a provocation. Such a view is informed by more than the historical irony that the Manchester Central Conference Centre is a stone’s throw from the site of the 1819 Peterloo massacre, which holds a special place in the history of the labour movement.

In their trip to the North, David Cameron’s Tories are occupying a Labour party stronghold, facing a part of the country that remains stubbornly immune to their charms, even if Chancellor George Osborne is MP for the nearby Cheshire seat of Knutsford.

Should universities minister David Willetts and the Conservative higher education team find the time to slip beyond the police cordon around the conference they will find a rich higher education micro-climate which contains two of the biggest, but very different, universities in the country and a range of smaller specialist institutions as well as a crop of new private providers.

All of these institutions will be watching the Central Conference Centre with interest for news of what future Conservative higher education policy might mean for them.

To market

The reforms to universities in England were started by David Willetts in 2010. The drivers for the changes that have taken place since then are cut from the same ideological cloth as Andrew Lansley’s NHS bill and Michael Gove’s free schools, academies and A Level reform projects. But while both Lansley and Gove have had to row back on aspects of their reforms in the face of stiff opposition from medical professionals and teachers, Willetts has achieved his policy objectives with little fuss from university leaders.

The new student finance arrangements are bedding in, with inevitable winners and losers, and as university managers feel that they are beginning to understand the rules better they are returning to their favourite game of league table snakes and ladders. Student opposition has been silenced and the lecturers’ union, damaged by declining membership, is immobilised by fretting over pay and defending conditions that many who are a lot worse off than academics in today’s economy would think of as indefensible.

The Liberal Democrats have their hands dipped in the whitewash of the coalition higher education policy, while the Labour Party is yet to articulate what it would do to universities if it were to form the next government. On the face of it, the Tories have never had it so good when it comes to higher education.

However, the Conservative party is nothing if not predictable in its self-contradictions.

Black sheep in a blue flock

Willetts has broken the monopoly of universities over the delivery of higher education by encouraging private and for-profit entrants to the market, while at the same time protecting the interests of those perpetually lobbying elite institutions that Conservative voters recognise and understand. Thus, squeezing the institutions and disciplines that have been the bête noire of the right-wing press for years. Most importantly for the Tories, this year’s encouraging enrolment figures suggest that intake to universities has returned to the levels they inherited from Labour.

So, why do rumours persist that David Willetts is likely to be for the chop in the next cabinet reshuffle? It is simply because he is at the wrong end of the Tory party. His reforms are viewed by the vast majority of his colleagues as too slow and too mild. There is a desire for accelerating the pace of marketisation and deregulation, dismantling the quangos and freeing institutions from government interference. Tory backbenchers want the brightest and best students directed towards elite universities to study traditional subjects.

If Willetts himself now has a slightly more nuanced view of the sector than the rest of the Conservative Party it is because he has actually had to familiarise himself with it as part of his ministerial brief. Good examples of this are his arguments with the Home Office over visa regulations for international students and his defence of the science budget in the latest spending review. For most Tory MPs, universities remain a bloated public sector industry awash with cash.

After Willetts

So, what might universities expect from a future majority Conservative administration? If I were to lay a bet it would not be on more of David Willetts. The role of universities minister has historically been characterised by short tenures held by incumbents who have quickly moved up the ministerial ladder.

The nature of the Coalition has meant that half of the avenues to ministerial promotion have been blocked to Willetts by Liberal Democrat ministers. The nature of the Conservative Party has meant that the other half are denied to him by virtue of not being right wing enough. His occupancy of the science and universities brief has been unusually long and, should he make it to the election in 2015, unparallelled.

But if the Conservative Party can pull off the equally unprecedented trick of increasing its share of the vote as an incumbent government, and in so doing can form a majority on its own, it will want someone more blue-blooded than Willetts in charge of the brief.

Whatever his fate may be, we can expect to see the Tories attempting to balance the aim of intensifying the marketisation of the sector with an existing commitment to remove a further £1 billion from the universities budget by 2017. In short, a possible Conservative higher education bill will look very much like the white paper that Willetts published in 2011 but only with added adrenalin and sharper free-market teeth.

However, higher education policy is unlikely to be anything other than a footnote in the Conservative’s election strategy. The reason for rushing £9,000 tuition fees through in the first days of this parliament was so that the electorate would forget about it by the time of the next election.

As much as they would like to boast about successful market reforms while in government, the Conservatives will still be nervous about drawing attention to the memory of student protest that caused so much trouble for the Liberal Democrats.

Rather, the Conservatives will be much more occupied by the threat to their core vote from UKIP and so are likely to persist with their existing immigration policy – which is, in itself, a cause of ongoing concern for universities.

The place of universities in the Tory imaginary is unlikely to be transformed by forming the next government. We will see more of the same, with the rhetoric of “best and brightest” opposing mass higher education, the policy of research concentration trumping widening participation, and the continued belief that Oxbridge and private-providers are the only institutions worth supporting.

Everything else will be a matter of technocratic fixes to support these broad aims within a context of shrinking public expenditure. It is not impossible to imagine an invigorated Tory-right going after “academic indulgences” such as funding research in the arts and humanities – this is exactly what is happening under the new Coalition government in Australia.