When politics gets unpredictable: What happens now for higher education in the UK?

By Emma Sabzalieva

The last year has been a strange time for British politics. Institutions and actors that had always seemed so reliable suddenly started behaving in unexpected ways. The first sign that things were changing came with the unpredicted ‘Leave’ vote following the referendum on European Union membership in June 2016.

This sparked a chain of events leading to the nomination of a new Prime Minister, Theresa May, who ever since taking on the reigns of one of the world’s oldest democracies has been doing her utmost to prove to the British people and to the world that she means business. She has positioned herself in the mould of Britain’s only other female leader to date, Margaret Thatcher, by using clear and direct rhetoric that aims to appeal to working class and rich alike (or in modern-day parlance, the losers and winners of globalization), and has been sticking firmly to her guns.

So perhaps it is a side-effect of the mind-boggingly complicated processes ahead in negotiating Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union that led to May succumbing to the plague of unpredictability now rearing its head in the UK. After publicly declaring no fewer than 11 times that she would not hold a snap general election, on April 18 the public – and most Members of Parliament too – were shocked to learn that a snap general election had been called for June 8.


What does all this mean for higher education in the UK?

In my view, there are three important implications of this political fluctuation for British higher education. The most pressing relates to the Higher Education and Research Bill, the first major attempt to introduce new legislation on higher education since 2004. Then there’s the ongoing issue of what to do (in policy terms) with international students coming in to the UK. And thirdly, there’s the prospect that this will lead to further differentiation of higher education within the nations of the United Kingdom, particularly between England and Scotland.

Higher Education and Research Bill

The Higher Education and Research Bill stems from the 2016 white paper Success as a knowledge economy; the creation of a Teaching Excellence Framework to quantify successful teaching and fund universities accordingly was the top ticket item in the Bill that grabbed the headlines. The Bill is currently being debated between the two Houses of Parliament: the elected Commons, which is broadly in support of the Bill, and the unelected Lords, which has tabled over 500 amendments, many of which have yet to be discussed.

There is now a very significant chance that the Bill will not make it over the finishing line by the end of April, after which point any pending legislation will be consigned to the scrapheap. Post-election, the Bill could be presented again in the same format, but it could equally be substantially revised to meet the ideological commitments of the new government – or dropped altogether.

International Students

This uncertainty also casts a shadow over a long-running thorn in the ruling Conservative Party’s side, that of how to manage international students. Since former Prime Minister David Cameron promised – and failed – to bring overall immigration into the UK down from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands, policymakers have at best been ambiguous about international students. Theresa May, on the other hand, appeared to radiate certainty when it comes to reducing overall immigration – including international students. This makes sense given the slender majority mandate given to the government following the Brexit referendum, which for many voters was seen as a choice between ‘taking back control’ of Britain’s borders or remaining part of a globalized and more international community.

Here too, May has proven that she is capable not just of shocking her colleagues in Westminster, but also the higher education community. Just after announcing the snap election, she also apparently called for a softening on immigration targets towards international students. According to the Prime Minister’s staff, this is to help the passage of the aforementioned Higher Education and Research Bill and to counter one of the amendments by the House of Lords which would effectively remove international students from migration targets.

Yet leading British higher education journal Times Higher Education says this concession may not be enough. With just a few days remaining before ‘purdah’ begins (marking the official end of policy activity ahead of an election), much more needs to be done to assuage the increasingly vocal House of Lords and pacify the opposition in the House of Commons. It would take more than this U-turn by May to speed the Bill through, and even in this climate of uncertainty, such a major shift in policy direction is unlikely.

UK Unity

One area where May will definitely not be pursuing a policy reversal (although these days, let’s never say never) is in her stance on keeping the United Kingdom together in a post-Brexit world. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted by some margin to keep Britain in the European Union, in contrast to the overall Leave result in England and Wales.

Scotland is the nation to watch here. The Scottish Parliament has more powers than its counterparts in Northern Ireland or Wales (England does not have its own legislature) and is ruled by a dominant Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) both at local and national levels. The SNP has abolished tuition fees in Scottish universities and has recently committed itself to ensuring that 20% of students entering in higher education come from the 20% most deprived areas of the country.

Riding on an ongoing wave of support in light of opposition to Brexit and a charismatic and astute leader, Nicola Sturgeon, calls for a second independence referendum are growing in Scotland. After a defeat in 2014, there is a sense that now is the time for Scotland to once more go to the polls in search of its own destiny.

Although May has ruled out a second referendum whilst the Brexit negotiations are now officially on course to begin, her decision to allow a general election in the UK surely (re-)opens the way for a vote on independence in Scotland. And if the British Parliament won’t allow it, there is a possibility that Scotland will go ahead regardless.

An independent Scotland would remain part of the European Union and may well be a more attractive study destination for the international students put off by England’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. Free tuition for students from European Union member states may also prove a decisive policy lever.

What does the future hold?

In a year’s time, it will be fascinating to look back on the events in Britain of 2016 and 2017. Will the Higher Education and Research Bill fall on its own (electoral) sword? Will policymakers ever decide just what do with international students – and what will international students make of the way they are being portrayed? And will higher education become ever more fragmented across the country – if indeed it remains the same country as it is now?

All these questions and doubtless more await. In the meantime, higher education analysts around the world should watch with interest as the politics of uncertainty unfolds in the UK.


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