How will British universities fare in the general election?

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February 9, 2015 by Nash Riggins

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Higher education is one of the most lucrative exports Britain has got. Not only is it worth about £70billion to the economy, but the country’s top universities play a crucial role in consolidating Britain’s withering reputation as a global superpower. With that in mind, any move to stifle industrial investment amounts to little more than a horrifically irresponsible, self-inflicted shot in the foot.

Cue Ed Miliband’s latest sortie into good ole fashioned populist politicking.

According to the Labour leader, if we vote for his party in May’s general election, we can expect to see university tuition fees drop by a third. What cash-strapped parent wouldn’t be jumping for joy at the prospect? Yet whilst Mr Miliband is swinging for the fences trying to secure easy votes, it’s worth taking a look at the long-term ramifications of tinkering with the country’s higher education system.

Over the past several years, nearly all of the UK’s top universities have been tumbling down the global leader boards at break-neck speed. In October, another three institutions lost their spots on the Times Higher Education top 200. Five universities slipped out of the top 400 – and unless we do more to attract international investment, next year’s leader boards will be even worse.

Yet for whatever reason, it looks like British politicians aren’t terribly worried about long-term investment in education. All that matters to them is a clean victory in May – and half of the near-sighted promises they’re making in the run up to this year’s election paint a damning picture for British universities.

Take Mr Miliband’s pledge to cut tuition fees – he claims that if we were to implement a £6,000 per year price cap, fewer graduates would be skipping out on their loan debts. It’s not an illogical premise. But experts reckon a sizeable tuition fee reduction like that would also create a £10bn black hole in university funding.

Learning institutions need that money in order to attract top researchers and stay competitive. So, if the UK government doesn’t pick up that tab, we’re going to witness a crippling talent exodus. Bearing in mind the UK’s higher education sector employs around 750,000 people, the knock-on effects of that brain drain won’t be pretty.

That said, a Conservative victory in May could prove equally damaging.

Home Secretary Theresa May is desperate to kick foreigners out of the UK (it’s become a bit of an unhealthy obsession, to be honest). She’s already failed miserably in her attempts to reduce net migration, but she’s not giving up. Her latest idea? We should force foreign students out of the UK after their studies are complete so they’ve got to apply for new visas from abroad. That way, people will get put off by government bureaucracy, forget living in the UK and take their talents elsewhere.

Make no mistake: a rule change like that would have the desired effect. Yet it would also discourage a huge chunk of international students from ever coming to the UK in the first place – and with most of those foreigners paying three-to-four times more in tuition costs than the average home-grown student, that shrinking student pool would create a severe cash flow problem at the country’s best universities.

If Britain wants to retain its reputation as a top international education destination, our universities need money – lots of money. Denying them a major chunk of reliable revenues will stifle innovation and cripple growth. And so whilst there may be plenty of camps out there salivating at the idea of cheaper tuition fees or less foreigners crawling around our city streets, we’ve got to be asking how these seemingly beneficial policies will ultimately come back to bite us a few years down the road.

No matter who wins the election, it looks like we’d better brace for impact.

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