Monday, 6 December 2010

Higher Education and National Politics

It is, to say the least, very unusual for higher education to feature highly in political discussions in the UK. The general election was fought recently here with two of the main political parties refusing to say anything much of consequence about it, referring only to the forthcoming Browne review as something whose conclusions they would consider. Partly as a consequence the Liberal Democrats succeeded in garnering some support and popularity across the sector simply by virtue of having a policy. This was helped by the fact that one of the aspects of this policy involved resistance to any increases in the cost of higher education and a history of having resisted efforts to impose fees on students in Scotland. 

All has changed here now. Firstly, on entering the coalition government, the Liberals allowed it to be the case that the pledge not to increase tuition fees was laid to rest in the agreement forming the coalition. Secondly, after the Browne report was published, they were the party that allowed it to be the case that fees would, after all, not only be raised but tripled despite having pledged to abolish them. All of this has now come home to roost as the party suffers more opprobrium over this issue from the campaigns that have been formed in defence of education than their coalition partners.

Secondly, there is now a proliferation of groups that are campaigning in support of public education. One of the latest, the Campaign for the Public University, has the signal merit of being formed in explicit opposition to the marketisation of education that was the key principle of the Browne report. This ensures that its' campaigns are particularly worth attention and support.

Meanwhile, as the Liberal Democrats fray at the edges and appear ready to go into meltdown, it is perhaps finally time that higher education has reached the point of being a political issue that cannot be ignored or side-lined in future general elections.

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