UKIP’s dangerous higher education policies

by Tom Bailey on January 28, 2013

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.

Social mobility

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.

Immigration

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.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Boudicca January 28, 2013 at 5:50 pm

“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.”

Social mobility data in the post war period to date has overwhelmingly demonstrated that Grammar Schools had the most positive impact on social mobility ever.

Comprehensive education has led to an education divide: between children who attend them and those whose parents can afford private education. The dumbing down which took place in the State sector, so that teachers could manage classes with extremes of ability, betrayed an entire generation of children, until comprehensives started introducing streaming.

But even streamed classes have not closed the gap between State and private schooling.

Reintroduction of Grammar Schools is generally popular amongst aspirational lower middle class and working class parents, who will never be able to afford private education. These parents know that the best hope for their bright children to compete for top-level universities and professional careers on a level playing field with their privately-schooled competitors, is through attending a Grammar School with children with similar academic potential.

It’s a UKIP policy that’s a winner with me.

patrickjdainleyPatrick Ainley January 28, 2013 at 9:29 pm

Sounds very like Willets and Gove – going back to an imagined past they have reinvented. (See Ainley and Allen forthcoming ‘The Great Reversal’.)

David Scott January 29, 2013 at 8:45 am

A more complete account of UKIP’s thinking on post-school provision was given in their 2010 election manifesto.

geraintjohnes January 29, 2013 at 9:07 am

Rationing the number of higher education places is indeed a bizzare policy suggestion. To deny access to a product to those willing to pay is usually regarded, for good reason, as economically inefficient – if people benefit more from the product than it costs to provide it, then surely it makes sense for the trade to take place. There is something both nanny-statish and ludicrous about the implication that government is a better judge of what education suits the needs of an individual than is the individual herself.

In today’s world, the policy would be worse than just inefficient. Where people are constrained in their choices in one location, they look to satisfy them elsewhere. This policy would lead to a outflux of young people, benefiting the economies of our competitors and damaging our own. Mainland European universities and North American universities would be over the moon.

As you suggest, UKIP’s policy on higher education ‘may well evolve’. But I wouldn’t bet on it doing so soon. UKIP seems to be happy to influence current government policy by threatening to split the right wing vote at the next general election. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be a credible threat – why would they cut their nose off to spite their face? Maybe, for now, a little eccentricity in certain policy areas is enough to frighten the government into making concessions in this parliament – the referendum comes to mind.

Mark Leach January 29, 2013 at 12:05 pm

@Boudicca

Chris Cook in the FT today explains why you are wrong: http://blogs.ft.com/ftdata/2013/01/28/grammar-school-myths/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

Mountains of other evidence that show similar things available as well.

Tom Bailey January 29, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Thanks for comments, thought I should probably reply.

Boudicca, I would point to the link Mark put up; Chris Cook has written quite a lot on this subject and has been pretty convincing to me. What reading / studies could you link to to support your view?

Patrick, thanks for the suggestion. When is it due to be published?

David, the 2010 manifesto does not expand on anything I have included here, unless I have missed something out.

http://www.ukip.org/media/pdf/UKIPmanifesto1304a.pdf seems to only have 2 paragraphs on higher education on page 8, adding nothing to what I have included in the article. Indeed, it suggests readers look at the education and training section on the website, which is the 2007 document I have cited.

If there are any other documents on UKIP policy then please do point them out.

geraintjohnes, thanks, I think I agree with what you write. I believe UKIP’s HE policy might have to resolve some of its inconsistencies with the party’s broader scepticism for such a large state role in provision of education / the general pro-market approach that I associate it with.

David Scott January 29, 2013 at 6:32 pm

Checking the 2010 manifesto, I commend Tom’s thoroughness, with the only thing that adds to what Tom has said being that UKIP were offering ‘Student Vouchers’ for study at university or other forms of training. The latter point indicates an important point that UKIP, as I understand it, favours more routes open to people into careers than having to go to university – an idea with much to recommend it.

I would imagine that if students want to fund themselves entirely then UKIP would have no problem with that, but even with the current regime in England that is not the situation – the government is still supporting HE through the funding council, and giving grants and low cost loans. The loans system will probably turn out to have been at least as expensive to the tax payer as giving grants.

Tom Bailey January 31, 2013 at 3:15 pm

Thanks David.

Favouring other routes into careers than university is quite a different thing to using the state to remove funding from a large number of institutions of higher education. Increase extra vocational training, fine. UKIP’s proposals are much more concrete on pushing back the size of UK higher education though.

I am not sure how students funding themselves could co-exist alongside a system of grants. That would surely just mean that ability to pay would, past say 30% of the year group, would determine access to higher education, rather than ability.

I too would criticise the current loans system – pretty much no one seems happy with it as it seems to combine every bad element – but I do think a part loans, part upfront state funding model is probably best on balance.

Terry Madeley May 4, 2013 at 11:46 am

Very interesting, a great (scary) read. Just wondering, though, what a response to this might be. Can we ignore them, because they’re obviously not going to get in, or do we worry that the Conservatives, in their efforts to get UKIP voters back, might lean more towards this point of view? They too want less students but the market/state thing seems an enormous difference.

Tom B May 6, 2013 at 6:14 pm

Thanks Terry.

On the market/state thing, UKIP seem to be a lot more like the Tory party’s 1980s stance, or even like that adopted by the tories against tuition fees pre 2005.

Like you I doubt they’ll get enough MPs for it to make a difference to national policy post 2015.

I think it’d be interesting to highlight the weird contradictions of their HE stance to UKIP. Policy clearly seems to be an issue for them at the moment:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/apr/27/ukip-local-elections-emails

However, HE is such a minor part of the policy platform that it really won’t be on the top of their priority list. I can’t see the Tory party moving towards UKIP on this issue. Would be interesting to raise these issues in the future and see if their stance changes.

Jack Duffin February 24, 2014 at 11:12 am

The 50% target for university is one that has caused a great deal of damage to young people irrespective of their next step, into further education or work.

We now have 50% of university graduates doing a non-grad job. They were told from a young age that all the best and brightest must go to university and that their degree will get them a well-paid job afterwards. Unfortunately this is a lie and has left them with no additional prospects and a large debt.

Those who did not have the right educational discipline to study a university degree have also been forced down this road. They have been told through their schools that there is no other route into the top jobs in this country but by obtaining a degree. This has meant those who aren’t incredibly academic but would be a major asset to the vast majority of companies have been denied the opportunity to succeed.

Also the 50% target has been of damage to those who would never go to university. Schools no longer focus on vocational study as the target driven culture of educational institutes have put children’s needs second to the aims of the school/college. Due to a reduction in people finishing schools with a quality vocational qualification, decent apprenticeships have dried up, companies don’t want employ people who leave school without the relevant qualifications and transferable skills. We have a small number of apprenticeships but unfortunately there is a major shortage of quality apprenticeships that lead to skilled jobs or career progression.

I would love to live in a world where everyone who wanted to study could do so until they had got a PhD and be funded by the tax payer but unfortunately this is not realistic or sensible. We have a national debt that is currently at £1.27 trillion and rising. By reducing the number of students and putting better funding in place to support them it would make sure we keep the demands of the economy for graduates without wasting money and burdening people with debt.

Universities are very much an environment for an individual to study an academic course. I would like to see vocational and technical qualifications moved into specialist ‘colleges’, for instance subjects such as Art and Drama. In these specialist sites funding can be targeted and pooled from multiple places allowing for a better quality of education and resources.

The reason the Office for Fair Access was created is because top University places were dominated by those who could afford to pay for an education that was better than the one the state provided. This was an incredibly cynical move, why not focus on improving state education that had fallen so far behind its rival.

For this reason we support the reintroduction of a grammar schools system, the brightest academic children irrespective of wealth should be able to access focused academic education. By giving them with this, we will see kids from poorer backgrounds being able to compete with the richest children for top university places and jobs. There were more working class kids at Oxbridge in the 1960’s than there are now. The top 5 schools now send more kids to Oxbridge than the bottom 2000 put together. This is an indication that something is seriously wrong.

These are my views as a UKIP member and not the ‘policy’ for UKIP, no party will release a 2015 manifesto this far before an election but I think this gives an overview of the common sense approach that UKIP would take to reform of our education system

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