As the Tories gather in Manchester, the minds of many will be more on the party aspect than the conference. After all, just a few short months ago all the polls showed that Ed Miliband would by now be prime minister. The conference would thus mark the end of a leadership contest in which the winner would have faced continued questions about the threat from UKIP and debates over why the Conservatives had failed to win an election outright since 1992.
Instead, the newly crowned majority government is buoyed not only by the result in May but by what they see as the serious blunders being made by Labour in opposition, not least the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. The temptation of some conference goers must surely be to find the nearest lobbyist, put his credit card behind the hotel bar and toast the future with grand cru champagne.
But whether this is justified or not (drinking champagne, always; kidnapping a lobbyist, perhaps not), it would be a mistake to neglect the conference element of the gathering, particularly in higher education, where there is a packed policy schedule. In rough chronological order, over the next few months Jo Johnson, the universities minister, will have to tackle: a tight spending review; how to assess teaching quality as part of the regulatory overview of higher education; what to do about international students and the linked issue of the EU referendum; and the issue of undergraduate fees.
The spending review will define almost everything after it. Higher education largely escaped major cuts in 2010 because of the switch from teaching grants (which appear on the accounts of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) to increased fees via loans (which are largely off the books). This time around, it will be expecting to share in the pain, most probably through cuts to widening participation budgets and a diminution of research and science funding. I believe there is room to go significantly further on restraining spending on higher education, particularly if doing so helps nurture higher level technical and professional qualifications in universities and further education colleges. And if Sajid Javid, the business secretary, is very skilled, he may find a (small) financial rabbit to allow for some attention to be placed on part-time or mature students.
The proposed teaching excellence framework (TEF) is probably Johnson’s biggest priority over the next few months. The overall timing is very tight: George Osborne, the chancellor, has promised that universities that pass the test can raise fees by September 2017, which means institutions will need to know their scores by next summer. The judgements will almost definitely need to be indicative (for which read fudged) in the first year, lest a new system introduced in a hurry turns out to be riven with perverse incentives. Universities could learn a lot here from schools, where the inspectorate, Ofsted, has spent the past two years rapidly moving backwards from any judgement of teaching quality, under a hail of weighty academic research that suggests such judgements are flawed. There will also be a green paper on higher education imminently which lays some of the groundwork for the TEF, as well as providing the much awaited tidy up of the broader regulatory infrastructure and promising to remove some of the barriers preventing new institutions from entering higher education and from further education colleges gaining the right to award their own qualifications.
At some point in 2016 – possibly – the EU referendum will be held. It is too early at this stage to predict what will happen. But the question of international students will continue to loom large among vice-chancellors and their finance directors. The Conservative manifesto promised various further crackdowns and Theresa May, the home secretary, is no fan of the way in which student visas have been used and abused in the past. Paradoxically, a vote to leave the EU (and hence gain greater control over borders) may actually lead to a loosening of the government’s position on international students and willingness to welcome them.
Finally did Lord Browne write his report in vain? The issue of undergraduate tuition fees, which many had hoped would be settled for a while, seems certain to re-emerge, under pressure from an unlikely coalition of vice-chancellors (who want them to go up) and Labour and the Scottish National Party (who want them to go down). There remains no majority in Parliament (nor any good policy reason, nor any money) for a total abolition of fees. Yet the poor, increasingly unloved £9,000 compromise – initially advocated by no one at all, of course – may not be able to stand the strain for too much longer. None of this is to mention postgraduate fees, which will almost certainly rise in coming years to, uncannily, match the levels of student loan funding that will be available from 2016.
All in all, a busy time. Perhaps instead of the champagne, a stiff whisky is called for.
This article first appeared in HE from Research Fortnight