On the face of it, the Conservatives should be looking forward to discussing higher education at their party conference in Manchester. As we will no doubt hear, the numbers of full time students starting this year look to have bounced back to somewhere close to 2010 levels – some 35,000 higher than this point last year and potentially the second highest on record. The controversial reforms to tuition fees look a lot less problematic today – and unlike other areas of public sector reform (Universal Credit, the NHS) the political narrative appears (for the conservatives at least) to have a happy ending.

Of course this is and will be contested over the longer term – there are still too many unknowns surrounding the longer term affordability of the new system. And this week both the OECD and John Cridland of the CBI have asked for a much more flexible, diverse system. We don’t know whether the new regime takes us closer or further away from such an objective. But in Manchester – and indeed in either Brighton or Glasgow – very few people seem to be worrying about that.

But the Conservative conference is still unlikely to be plain sailing – there are too many voices in the party that remain uncomfortable with higher education and with the policy reforms – compared to the grass roots and media approval for Michael Gove’s reforms to schools. Why is that? After all whatever Gove has done he can’t yet claim the outcomes that David Willetts will be able to point to next week?

Ultimately it comes down to the tensions and contradictions between the economic conservatism behind many of the reforms and a more instinctive, social conservatism that often lies at or very near the surface. And these aren’t the tensions of working in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, they are tensions in Conservative thinking and are extremely difficult to reconcile.

In higher education we see competition and marketisation – more institutions, more involvement from the private sector and alternative providers, more power to the user, more mechanisms for choice, more information to help users decide… all largely ‘free market’ thinking. But that’s clearly not enough for some – they still see far too much regulation and state interference.

At the same time we also see and hear increasing references to the ’best universities’ and to the ‘brightest and best students’ from home and abroad.  But again, not nearly enough for some in the party (or some in universities, schools and the media). Certainly there have been no shortage of views expressed to this effect – from Conservative MPs on the BIS and DFE select committees, from the Free Enterprise Group, the ‘Forty Group’ of Conservative MPs with the most marginal seats and from think tanks such as Policy Exchange and Bright Blue.

Calls for further deregulation of the market and withdrawal by the state have been common. But so too have been calls for more funding and less restrictions on the ‘best universities’ and students. Ken Baker (who counts as a group all on his own) has also recommended uncapping fees and the ‘freeing’ of the best universities from state control.

You could be forgiven for thinking that almost the entire Conservative party sits to the right of David Willetts – perhaps just one of the reasons why speculation of a possible reshuffle continues. But most critics as well as potential ministerial replacements fail to come down firmly on either side – all are torn between a sense of tradition and stability for the ‘elite’ and a yearning for increased competition and marketisation.

It was the Conservatives – under John Major in 1992/3 – that first allowed polytechnics and subsequently many other institutions, to become universities. But a snobbishness persists – particularly toward the institutions that they know less well. Similarly, both mass or widened participation no longer seems a desirable social or economic objective. And a sector notoriously obsessed by hierarchy rather than diversity, doesn’t necessarily help to make it any easier.

Michael Gove faces all of the same issues – reviving or inventing the traditions of a classic conservative education tradition – knowledge, rigour (and more people failing), whilst also wanting more competition and choice (free schools, academies, teacher training etc). But he also wants to measure school performance by how many apply and are sent to the ‘top universities’.

He ticks the boxes of small state, ‘government is the problem’ rhetoric – while delivering big state, paternalist policy at the same time; more powerful inspection regimes, new national curricula, wide ranging examination and qualification reform – all very ‘top down’ and driven muscularly by, and from, the centre.

The long-rumoured possibility of reintegrating universities into an expanded Department for Education would not easily resolve the problem, though many still expect that to be a Conservative proposition if they win an outright majority in 2015. Either way I can’t imagine that Michael Gove would want to run it – his ambitions beyond the election will require something higher up the ministerial pecking order.

Immigration has provided another great contradiction for essentially similar reasons. Economically, the conservatives appear to support the expansion of education as a sector and higher numbers of ‘exports’ with no limits on the brightest and best coming to the UK. At least that’s what the ‘lines to take’ suggest. In practice, it feels very different – and the threat of UKIP at the polls along with immigration likely to be a more significant electoral issue than HE, suggests that the social conservatives might win the day.

If reforms were just about the liberal economics of competition and choice then the conservatives would be happy and would encourage ‘new’ or ‘newer’ universities to compete for students and for research and to attain the description ‘best’. But they won’t or they just can’t. To be fair this is something that bedevils plenty in Labour and the Liberal Democrats as well as amongst left leaning commentators – look at the Observer’s piece on clearing and the ‘massification’ of HE in August or Aditya Chakrabortty’s Guardian article this week on the ‘failed experiment‘ of expanding higher education.

It is hard to see whether and how a narrative or specific policy objectives might coherently bring these issues together in the 2015 manifesto. As with immigration it may be more likely that social, rather than economic, conservatism wins out because of its simpler electoral appeal. It’s much easier to explain and to defend than more complex policies such as ABB, student number controls or fair access. Even the role of universities in delivering industrial strategy and economic growth wouldn’t seem to be comfortable territory for a Conservative manifesto. However successful or desirable all have the whiff of interventionism and social engineering.

We will obviously see credit claimed for the reforms and the shift to a ‘sustainable’ system likely to have more full time undergraduate students at university than at any time under Labour. We may even see commitment to legislation in the next parliament in order to cement these changes (it would be very hard not to do so). But any manifesto language is still more likely to talk about the best rather than the rest. Or to put it another way, much less of the complex prose of government and more of the simple, populist poetry of the right.

Andy Westwood

This is the second in a series of blogs analysing the positions of each of the three main political parties ahead of their party conferences. GuildHE – together with Universities UK, the National Union of Students, the 1994 Group, the University Alliance and the Quality Assurance Agency are working together to organise debates at each party conference. See the Events page for details.

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