Friday, 8 May 2015

The people have spoken ...

And I’m not sure that many expected exactly the result we’ve got. There’s lots of things to be said about the detailed HE policy implications of the election result, and I might well say some of them in due course. But for now I just want to set out a few thoughts about the bigger political context – a small majority, Europe, Scotland and austerity.

Nicholson St, Edinburgh. Spot the Union Jack. #indyref2 on its way.
Firstly, the small majority. It won’t take many rebellious Conservative MPs to create a problem for the government. One or two voting against something won’t make a difference – the opposition doesn’t coalesce around any obvious point of view for that to be the case – but 20-30 rebels could well defeat the government. So there’ll be careful management of parliamentary business and it may well be that more contentious issues are shelved if they can be. Some university issues definitely count as contentious – 2010 Millbank riots anybody? – so HE issues that need parliamentary discussion or votes might not be flavour of the month.

Secondly, Europe. One of the ways that the Prime Minister will keep his MPs happy is to progress EU negotiations quickly in the hope that by 2017 there’s a good deal enabling a positive referendum campaign to stay within the EU. The problem is that what counts a good deal depends very much on where you’re sitting, and the benefits of Europe that accrue to HE – student mobility, research funding – might not look so beneficial if you’re worried about public spending and migration. So there could be a bit of planning blight around things European which might be tricky.

Thirdly, Scotland. I’ve been spending some time in Edinburgh recently and it’s obvious that something has changed in how lots of people in Scotland think and feel ab out the UK, its politics and government. The post-referendum response by the UK government was a fudge, and contributed to yesterday's overwhelming SNP victory in Scotland. If the issue is taken seriously, then pro-union views might yet find a way to keep Scotland within the UK, but I wouldn’t bet on it. And as HE is a devolved matter, any discussions around constitutional change or devolution will have an impact. No matter which part of the UK you’re in, this will affect you.

And finally, money. Even before the election campaign we knew that there were substantial further cuts planned to government spending. In England, BIS will not be immune; and the consequential impact upon budgets in devolved administrations (even if we assume that the Barnett formula will be maintained) will be real too. So the question of the sustainability of student funding (fees, grants, depending on where you are) and the amount of research funding will become pressing issues. But, see above, contentious issues might have to be shelved because of parliamentary problems. So research funding is likely to get clobbered.

Some of this would be true no matter what the outcome of the election, but it does seem to me that parliamentary politics hasn’t stopped being interesting for higher education yet...

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