Birgitta Vuorinen: “Clear Plan, Bold Action, Secure Future” or….


Birgitta Vuorinen: “Clear Plan, Bold Action, Secure Future” or….

The UK is preparing for general elections. The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have already unveiled their manifestos. The Green Party is expected to do so on Wednesday and the Labour Party on Thursday this week. What would universities like to see in the next Government’s programme? What could be there for students, researchers and universities?

UK’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have announced that the country will go to the polls on 4 July 2024. Timing for the general election came as a surprise for many, since the most common guess was the elections would be held in October-November this year. Nevertheless, the parties had clearly made preparations and the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives launched their manifestos already on Tuesday 11 June. Manifesto sets out the policies the party would deliver if they were to win a general election. 

Right after the launching event today, the Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey was filmed on a swing ride at an amusement park in Northern London. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unveiled the Conservative party manifesto at Silverstone, a renowned Formula 1 racecourse. It would be interesting to hear what the party leaders wanted to tell with the symbolic attached to these places. One thing is for sure, it is not about stagnation. It might be the right signal now when many voters are looking for a change.

Universities UK manifesto is calling on support for students and universities to succeed

In addition to political parties, different stakeholder organisations are publishing their wishes for the next Government. One of these wish lists was launched by the Universities UK (UUK). UUK launched its manifesto for higher education and research on 29 May 2024. UUK represents 140 British universities. These universities educate 2.7 million students every year. That is 96 % of all higher education students in the UK. Universities employ 

The manifesto is calling on political parties to support students to succeed by 1) reinstating maintenance grants for those who need them most, 2) correct maintenance loans to reflect real rates of inflation, 3) providing enough university places to meet the increased demand resulting from a demographic growth, 4) returning teaching investments per student to the level of 2015-2016 by linking tuition fees of undergraduate students to inflation and an increase in grants for teaching, and 5) targeting regulation where the risks are highest. UUK suggests putting universities at the heart of growth by 1) setting a target for GDP invested in R&D by 2030 which matches the most innovative and competitive economies around the world, 2) treating R&D as long-term capital investment, UUK would like to see 10-year funding cycles instead of short term Spending Reviews, 3) supporting stable and meaningful growth  in international students backed by a pledge to maintain the Graduate visa for international students allowing graduates to stay in the UK 2 or 3 years after graduation, depending on the level of HE degree, and 4) increasing public trust and confidence in the UK’s immigration system by separating temporary migration from permanent migration in migration figures (statistics). UUK would like the future Government to support opportunities, place and social mobility by 1) incentivising stronger place-based networks, 2) establishing a new “tertiary education opportunity fund”, 3) providing enough resources and support for  degree apprenticeship, 4) increasing support for universities to work with business to support start-ups and spin-outs, 5) working with universities to deliver NHS England’s Long Term Workforce Plan, and 6) encouraging more universities back into teacher training. 

It is interesting to notice that in addition to maintaining the Graduate visa and developing immigration statistics, UUK’s manifesto does not say much about internationalisation nor expectations on association to the European Union Programmes’ next phase. It is a bit surprising since universities spoke strongly on behalf of UK’s association to the Horizon Europe Programme. But then again, the same goes with different parties manifestos. Only the Liberal Democrats have taken a stand when it comes to EU and they are hoping to take the UK back into the single market - in a long run. Lib Dems would also support “rebuilding confidence through seeking to agree partnerships or associations with EU agencies and programmes such as the European Aviation Safety Agency, Erasmus Plus, scientific programmes, climate and environment initiatives, and cooperation on defence, security and crime.”

Conservatives about higher education and research 

The 80-page document “Clear plan, bold action, secure future” sets out the aims and measures the Conservative Party suggests for the voters. The party aims at transforming the 16-19 education, which gives eligibility to higher education studies, by introducing the Advanced British Standard, a new Baccalaureate-style qualification. The qualification would build on the current secondary education level qualifications, A-levels and T-levels. The initiative was brought up by Prime Minister last year and the Government has already launched a consultation on the new qualification. Government has estimated that it would take around ten years before the qualification would be in use.   

The Conservatives also promise to fund 100 000 apprenticeships, “paid by curbing the number of poor-quality university degrees that leave young people worse off”. Prime Minister Sunak has several times brought up abolishing poor-quality degrees, so called “Mickey Mouse” degrees. The Conservatives promise to close university courses in England with high dropout rates or courses that leave graduates no better off. The Office for Students OfS, which regulates universities, has estimated that this would apply to no more than 3 % of current students.  The manifesto emphasises the need to reduce migration. Manifesto lists some of the successful reforms made, including ending the ability of almost all international students to bring to bring dependants with them. The manifesto suggests that the UK should increase visa fees and remove the student discount to the Immigration Health Surcharge. This would make studying at a British university more expensive to international students. 

When it comes to R&D, the manifesto sounds familiar and does not contain surprises. The aim of increasing public spending on R&D to 22 billion a year is part of the current Government programme. As is maintaining the tax relief for companies investing in R&D and continuing investing over 1.5 billion in large-scale compute clusters (incl. Isambard in Bristol and AI Hubs around the country), pushing forward the Advanced Manufacturing Plan and building on the Catapults.  

The target of reducing the number of civil servants to the pre-pandemic size is also one of those promises made in the current Government Programme. The manifesto highlights the need to move civil servants outside of London. The Conservative Party would like to see more civil servants having digital and AI expertise. These and other renewals are expected to bring more productivity and £20 billion of annual savings. It would be interesting to see the implementation plans: from where these reductions would be made. How much it would touch the central Government level and how it would effect on Governmental organisations, like regulators and funding organisations. 

When do we know where the next Government will take the UK?

The general election timetable takes 25 working days, starting from the dissolution of the Parliament. The parliament was dissolved, and all MPs lost their seats, on 30 May. The Election Day is 4 July. The new Parliament will be called to meet a less than a week after the elections. The State opening of the new Parliament and the King’s speech, announcing the major legislative changes suggested by the new Government, is expected to take place on 17 July.  Whoever wins the general elections and forms the next Government will immediately have to start writing a spending review and be able to complete it ahead of a December 2024, which is kept to be the “cliff edge” for the budget. The budgetary year starts in April. 

When writing this article, the Labour Party’s manifesto is not out, yet. However, maybe my next writing is about Labour’s thoughts since the polls suggest the Labour would win the UK general elections after 14 years of the Conservative rule. 

The Conservatives:
The Liberal Democrats:
Universities UK:

Text:  TFK special adviser in the UK and Ireland, Birgitta Vuorinen,

Photo: Visiting the University College London ARC discussing HPC and AI evosystems. From the left: Professor Samuel Kaski/FCAI, Professor James Hetherington/UCL ARC, Head of Research Computing Owain Kenway UCL/ARC, Director Pekka Lehtovuori/CSC, Birgitta Vuorinen/TFK, Director Mari Walls/CSC, Senior Vice-President Laura Juvonen VTT. Photo: Senior Coordinator Minttu Taajamo/CSC