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The phrase is Tim Montgomerie’s.  He used to deploy it roughly as follows.  Yes, politics means making choices.  But they doesn’t always have to be either/or.  The Conservatives can have immigration control and international development.  Green growth and more fracking.  Same-sex marriage and transferable tax allowances.

The new majority Tory Government won’t necessarily smile on these examples.  But it will want to follow the principle.  To this end, ConservativeHome is reviving The Politics Of And.  In one series, we will examine Securing the Majority.  In another, Growing the Majority.  Boris Johnson will want to do both.

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It is a leitmotif of this series that there are actions which the new Government will want to take which are good for their own sake. But which will also have the side-effect of helping to secure or grow the majority.

One of these is developing its policy on higher and further education.  For us, there are three main issues.

First, a sense that the balance between the two isn’t right.  As Alison Wolf put it on this site, “public spending per student is more than six times as high in universities as it is in the nation’s colleges. This imbalance looks even harder to justify in the light of regional inequalities.”

Second, there is what is usually and inaccurately labelled a free speech problem in Universities.  Free speech is not precisely the issue.  Rather, it is ensuring that higher education is a “safe space”, to borrow the jargon, for students with conservative, libertarian, centre-right or even liberal views: that they are made to feel no more or less welcome on campus than anyone else.  The issue is already live in relation to Jewish students.

Finally, there is the Conservative Party’s own internal housekeeping.  There has been no organised push among academics of any note since Leon Brittan undertook one for Margaret Thatcher during the late 1970s.  That should change.

The Tory manifesto is coy about higher education, pledging to “consider carefully” the “thoughtful recommendations of the Augur Review. Wolf was a member of the August Panel and her piece for us is still a must-read.  “Today’s young people are effectively offered a single choice. A full degree, now – or nothing,” she wrote. “Overall, Augar’s recommendations are designed to reverse this idiocy.”

She wants “more money for the neediest – cash to get further education back on its feet, to invigorate technical education, to allow adults to retrain and progress, and to reinstate maintenance grants for the poorest students”.  Nick Timothy wanted to close some universities.  Our columnist Neil O’Brien suggests reducing “access to courses that deliver low economic value in terms of graduate earnings premia”.

On free speech and all that, there is new guidance for Universities, produced in the wake of a free speech summit.  The question is whether it takes full account of the problem that we are trying to describe.  When Sam Gyimah was Universities Minister, he warned as follows: “Let’s say you happen to be quite right-wing, but your lecturer disagrees with your politics. You can suddenly become quite conscious about expressing your views because they mark your essays and grade you.”

We would be very nervous were we a conservative student at a University taught by a lecturer who, say, is prone to mouth off about “the Tories” on social media.  These will say that they have a right to free speech.  We say that they have a pastoral responsibility to all their students.

On the final point about Conservative academics, there is a fledgling network.  It was originally set up when David Cameron was Prime Minister; went into abeyance under Theresa May, but is still very much around.  Downing Street should take an interest in it.

Boris Johnson will need higher and further education Ministers who are across these issues – and who are capable, as Gyimah was in his Tory days, of touring the Universities (in this instance to make the case for conservatism); working with Tory academics; ensuring the free speech guidance is adhered to; responding to Augur.

We hope that Number Ten resists the temptation to take higher education policy out of the Education Department again, though we’re not confident on this point. Chris Skidmore has been in and out of the Universities Minister brief, which Jesse Norman or O’Brien himself could also do.

19 comments for: The Politics of And. Growing the Majority 3) Further education and higher education

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