Election manifestos and higher education

With the launch of Labour’s 2024 election manifesto yesterday, the battle lines have been drawn for the parties’ pledges around higher education and skills.

Labour’s manifesto has a big focus on skills in a bid to win support, with a pledge to establish a Skills England body to simplify the complex and often confusing skills landscape for employers and learners, and a transformation of the apprenticeship levy into the Growth and Skills levy. 

While the Labour manifesto is light on funding detail for higher education and university policy, it boldly states the current funding model isn’t working for students, universities, or the taxpayer. Their manifesto promises a Labour government will “act to create a secure future for higher education” and “will work with universities to deliver for students and our economy.” That wording is key – an indication the party wants to work collaboratively with the sector to find solutions and safeguard higher education and HEIs, in contrast to the Conservatives’ briefings about the regulator closing ‘rip off’ degrees and fuelling media coverage of ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses.

The Conservatives created intense debate earlier this month with their plans to close so-called low-value undergraduate courses to fund 100,000 more apprenticeships. Many criticised the policy as a simplistic view of post-18 education as either a degree or an apprenticeship pathway. The proposed policy also stoked fears that the arts and humanities would again be negatively impacted by cuts. The universities that have reacted publicly have pointed to the fact that many HEIs already offer a wide range of degree apprenticeship options to students, combining degree-level study with vocational skills training. 

The Liberal Democrat manifesto promises a review of higher education finance in the next Parliament. They want 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 to make sure there are no more retrospective raising of rates or selling-off of loans to private companies.

It’s perhaps no surprise both Labour and the Lib Dems have steered away from big university funding promises in their election manifestos. The Lib Dems have suffered long-term reputational damage with the public and the media after the party broke their 2010 election manifesto commitment to oppose an increase in student fees while they were in government as part of the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition. 

The ramifications from that particular university policy u-turn is a stark reminder of how important education, university and skills policy is to voters. 

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