The Six Key Higher Education Issues At The 2015 General Election

The realisation the student vote is worth chasing has finally begun to dawn on politicians, with party leaders ploughing their efforts into rallying potential young supporters.

Student voters are obviously going to be concerned with the state of higher education, which is currently a turbulent landscape. But what are the key issues in the HE sphere?

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Recent research from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) revealed six key areas policymakers need to address in time for May's election - along with outstanding questions which remain to be answered.

  • Firstly, its the student voters themselves.

According to HEPI, opinion polls suggest Labour could be set to gain the most among students at the election, while Conservative support has held "relatively steady" among students in recent years.

In order for students to make a difference to the election outcome, they must turn out to vote, live in a marginal constituency and vote in a different pattern to the rest of the local electorate.

Outstanding questions:

What is each higher education institution doing to encourage students to join the register?

Can local authorities do more to work with universities to raise registration rates?

What further reforms could make it easier forstudents to vote at future elections?

The report adds: "HEPI research suggests these factors could be present in around ten seats at the 2015 election. Labour may gain half a dozen seats from the Conservatives and a couple from the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives could take another couple from the Liberal Democrats."

  • Fees and loans are another pressing issue.

There has been an increase in the proportion of youths applying to study full-time in higher education since the tuition fee cap was raised in 2012, however the total number of students has fallen, particularly among part-time applicants.

Alternative undergraduate models have been proposed, including most recently by Labour, following claims the £9,000 cap is unsustainable. The Green Party has pledged free education for all, while the 2014 student protest showed students are still anguished by tuition fees, and are not satisfied by the current system in place.

Outstanding questions:

Will England’s £9,000 tuition fee cap be reduced or increased?

Should the student loan repayment terms be tweaked to ensure more money is repaid?

Is the concept of a UK-wide system of higher education under threat and is it worth protecting

Future student numbers is another issue, since the revelation numbers have declined following the fee rise.

As HEPI puts it: "Increasing the number of graduates can transform lives, improve social mobility and raise economic performance."

But the report adds: "The removal of student number controls was put together quickly and remains fuzzy. No one knows for certain how many extra students will turn up or what will happen to an institution where quality diminishes as a result of the new freedoms."

Shadow minister for universities Liam Byrne has called for more earn-as-you-learn degrees, although this remains to be made an official Labour policy.

Outstanding questions

How will the extra costs from removing student number controls be paid for?

Would the commitment to remove student number controls survive a change of Government?

How would new earn-as-you-learn degrees differ from current offerings?

  • International students have been a point of contest for the past couple of years, with many UK students unhappy with the way their overseas peers are treated by the government's current policy, which includes internationals in migration targets.

Students from outside the EU bring huge economic benefits to the UK, yet many say they have been made to feel "unwelcome" by the coalition.

Perhaps as a result of this, in 2012/13 the number of new international students studying in the UK fell for the first time since 1994/95.

Outstanding questions

Should the Home Office share responsibility for student migration with other government departments?

Can the independent Migration Advisory Committee be asked to evaluate the costs and benefits of international students?

Could the post-study work rules be made more competitive for all or part of the UK?

Diversity of provision is another interesting issue, primarily due to the concerns raised around some of the education supported by taxpayer-subsidised loans.

Students have been given greater choice within the higher education sector, which has created more competition for traditional providers.

HEPI highlights: "In 2011, a Government white paper promised a level regulatory playing field for higher education providers of all types.. The current landscape more closely resembles an unkempt meadow. The pinch points include different rules on fees and loans, degree-awarding powers and freedom of information."

Outstanding questions

What scope is there for alternative providers to deliver further innovation?

Is the balance in funding between publicly financed higher education providers and alternative providers right?

When will legislation appear that offers a new regulatory framework for all providers of higher education?

Science and research funding poses the final issue, with possible cuts of up to 40.1% in the department for business, innovation and skills (BIS) budget.

One lecturer was recently fired for reportedly not securing enough funding for their university, so it is certainly a contentious point.

HEPI adds: "The Institute for Fiscal Studies also note all three of the main parties could cut by less than the Autumn Statement predicted while keeping within their fiscal rules. But none of them has offered to protect the BIS budget and, were the science and research budget to be maintained, then the other parts of BIS could take a bigger hit."

Outstanding questions

What additional evidence do policy makers need on the economic benefits of further research spending?

Will the ring-fenced science and research budget continue to be protected?

What will happen to the resource and capital budgets of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills?

There is certainly much food for thought, but, as HEPI points out, even if higher education does not play a central role in the 2015 election campaign, the result would have the potential to affect the sector for "decades to come".