UKIP are on the rise. Nigel Farage has become a permanent feature of political shows as recent polls have shown his party finding unprecedented levels of support. UKIP has been consistently ahead of the Lib Dems, building support amongst discontented Conservative voters over issues such as the EU and gay marriage. While the party does not have any MPs and will struggle with the first-past-the-post system (described rightly by Farage as “brutal to a party” like UKIP), it seems likely to feature far more prominently in 2015 than it did in 2010 and it is likely to do very well at next year’s European Parliament elections. So, what does UKIP, which describes itself as a “libertarian, non-racist party seeking Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union”, propose for higher education?
In the absence of a coherent or complete policy platform, deciphering what they believe about higher education is difficult. UKIP’s literature about higher education only include various statements from Farage, a selection of online videos and a few policy documents, both from the national party and local sections such as County Durham and Tunbridge Wells. UKIP were contacted during the researching of this article but did not respond.
Funding, shape and size
UKIP are in opposition to the current income-contingent loans system, describing the introduction of fees as “a retrogressive step”. Unlike the other main parties, UKIP does not propose tweaking the current model. It also does not favour a fully private market for higher education in which the state would no longer pay the costs upfront. Instead, UKIP has called for a “return to a student grant system”, with the state footing the full bill. It would be a generous system, for those allowed to attend, but hardly one that fits with UKIP’s declared libertarian approach. Instead, it is more familiar as the approach taken for most of the post-war period when the size and shape of the student population was markedly different.
Given that higher education is to be made free, and free provision inevitably means greater demand, how would UKIP control the cost of this provision? In essence, how many people do UKIP want to attend university? The party clearly want far less people to reach higher education than do currently. A 2007 policy statement said the party would “scrap the nonsensical target of making 50% of school leavers go to university”, a sentiment echoed in a November 2011 statement.
The party faithful’s support for such a view is indicated in a video of the divisive former Chief Inspector of Schools in England, Chris Woodhead, speaking at the party’s 2012 conference. “Why do we have to pretend that 50% of the population has to go to university to get a Mickey Mouse, dumbed-down…” he appealed to his audience, only for the rest of his sentence to be drowned out by ecstatic cheering. A percentage is not put on the number that UKIP wants to attend higher education, but it would presumably be far lower than it is at present.
Under UKIP then, the provision of higher education is not to be controlled by student demand but by the state, an interesting position for a supposedly libertarian political party. The rationale for this reduction in higher education provision is explained in a rather mystifying sentence by UKIP’s Tunbridge Wells section: “The simple fact is that many jobs do not require qualification to degree level, and that degrees from some educational establishments are recognised by the students themselves as worth considerably less academically than those from the older universities such as the Russell Group.”
The Robbins principle, which stated that “courses of higher education should be available to all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so”, is not favoured by UKIP. UKIP insists that university education “should only be available to those with a genuine thirst for knowledge and the acumen to handle it” and they have decided that the current system does not achieve that. It seems to be a view rooted in the belief that far too many people go to university in the UK, something that international comparisons refute. It is clear that given the opportunity, UKIP would oversee a large reduction in university participation.
Just as the demand for higher education would not to be left to students under UKIP, nor would the supply of higher education be left to universities. Again, there are signs of an approach that would have the state dictating which favoured institutions students should attend. One UKIP document favours “a nationwide review of higher education with the intention of distinguishing between those institutions that deserve the title of university and those that do not, and between those courses which merit degree status and those that do not.” Again, rather than a mixed market, the Government would have far greater control over who goes into further study, what subjects they could study and where they would be able to go.
In this area, UKIP’s policies are easily summarised: re-introduce grammar schools and abolish of the Office for Fair Access. The party has called for an end to “social engineering”, opposing contextual offers. Again, Chris Woodhead’s statement that “grammar schools are the most successful institution we have ever had in this country if we’re interested in social mobility” seems to be keenly endorsed by Farage. Reading their literature, one gets the sense that this is more to do with a convenient sense of nostalgia than an actual analysis of the impact of the grammar school policy on social mobility.
Finally, UKIP unsurprisingly have very strong views on immigration that would affect higher education. The emphasis throughout UKIP literature is on reducing overall immigration and leaving the EU. Indeed, a November 2012 document recommended freezing “permanent immigration for 5 years”. Exclusion for overseas students from an immigration cap seems unlikely to form part of a UKIP policy platform. The UKIP County Durham paper even said “preference” should be given to UK school leavers. It would not bode well for the 430,000 overseas students in the UK in the academic year 2010-11, according to UKCISA, or the universities that depend on them.
Overall, the UKIP higher education policies have one common theme: nostalgia – or a faux nostalgia that conveniently fits their reactionary views. Their proposals would drastically limit students’ choices, both in terms of potential subjects and institutions. UKIP also seem casually derisory of the public benefits of both UK universities and the students that attend them.
Despite their professed libertarian nature, UKIP would seem to favour a far larger role for the state in the funding, provision and control of higher education. The preference for this expanded state control does not seem to derive from a confidence in state provision. Instead, it is about achieving one desired aim: taking higher education back several decades, reversing massification by drastically limiting the opportunities for so many and shrinking the UK’s world-class university sector to a handful of state-funded elite ivory towers.
The policy platform reminds me of quote from John Major, who was once caught on camera complaining that his party was “still harking back to a golden age that never was, and is now invented”. Throughout UKIP’s higher education policies, a common feature is a yearning for the past, be it grammar schools, fewer people at university, student grants or no more “social engineering”.
UKIP’s higher education policy may well evolve as the party comes under further scrutiny (it is also currently incomplete, e.g. there is no mention of research or innovation). But currently it is a backwards looking, surprisingly statist platform that would permanently wreck the UK’s higher education sector, do unfathomable damage to our economy and wind the clock back on decades of hard-won social progress.