What the Labour Party Win Means for UK Higher Education

With a Labour Party win, a great many things are about to change in the UK. From healthcare service to energy reform, the party’s pledges are set to transform sectors neglected by the previous administration. While the Labour election manifesto was short on details specific to higher education, their propositions will no doubt influence it. With that in mind, we’re taking a deeper dive into what the Labour Party has planned and how these changes will impact higher education in the coming years.

Early Years Education

What better place to start than the future of education itself? Specifically early years education where the party has lofty ambitions.

For students, the Labour manifesto includes mention of free breakfast clubs in every primary school. There will be increased mental health support and improvements in how data is shared on special education and disability needs. They’ll also offer better professional careers guidance in all schools & colleges, as well as two weeks’ worth of work experience.

Their scope isn’t limited to students. The curriculum itself is set to be reviewed, with intents to broaden. This change will provide more opportunities for children to study diverse subjects including music, sport and the arts.

The Labour Party also intends to recruit 6,500 teachers in key subjects, funded through the removal of tax breaks for private schools.  New roles will include careers advisers in every school and mental health support for staff at a national level. To improve retention, Labour will establish Teacher Training Entitlement programme and review bursaries, as well as other payments.

What it means for Higher Education

The hope is that additional support systems will see more domestic students complete their education, creating a wider pipeline of future applicants. This renewed focus on wellbeing along with career guidance have the potential to significantly boost application numbers in coming years.

A diversification of subjects could also change the current landscape of programme demand. Arts courses have particularly suffered under the previous government’s rhetoric, as have those in education. Expanding programmes which expose more people to arts and culture have the potential to drive interest, while new career incentives appear poised to halt and even reverse the falling demand in education degrees.

Funding the NHS

Another platform central to the Labour Party campaign was healthcare. More specifically, a restoration of the NHS. Such plans include 700,000 more dentistry appointments, 8,500 additional mental health staff, and guaranteed face-to-face GP appointments. They also aim to reduce wait times with 40,000 more weekly appointments, created through increased evening and weekend pay for staff.

The restoration of NHS funding is somewhat controversial against the backdrop of higher education. Just last year Kier Starmer walked back on plans to abolish tuition fees in order to fund these improvements to the NHS. Not great news to break to the incoming generation of students, nor their parents.

What it means for Higher Education

As seen with arts & education, there’s been consistent drops in student interest for health and nursing programmes. This renewed focus on the healthcare system, more specifically better pay for employees has the potential to shift those trends. We’re also likely to see improved relationships between university medical research and the NHS, a boon for both sectors.

Stepping away from the idea of free tuition in lieu of the NHS is likely a huge relief for the already cash-strapped sector. The funding logistics alone were enough to keep any education marketer awake at night.

Foreign Policy & Immigration

It’s an understatement to call the current state of international student recruitment rocky. Changes to rules on dependents, minimum pay thresholds for Visa holders, and threats to curb the graduation migration route have tremendously impacted foreign applications across the last year. In some cases, applications are down over 30% YoY.

Unfortunately, the Labour party isn’t likely to reverse this. Labour will continue reducing net migration within the workforce, particularly in sectors such as health and construction. They will also strengthen the Migration Advisory Committee and establish a framework for joint working with skills bodies across the UK, the Industrial Strategy Council and the Department for Work and Pensions. Their goal is to train more skilled workers within the existing UK population, instead of recruiting from abroad. None of these pledges are welcome news for international students looking to come to the UK.

What it Means for Higher Education

Labour doesn’t appear to be interested in reversing some of the more damaging policies made by the previous government. At least not in the immediate term. In fact, they will continue to seek ways to curb migration as a whole, while improving domestic skillsets.

Now despite the downturn in applications from international students, the UK remains one of the top destinations for international study. We’ll just see fewer numbers than we are used to – A glaring problem for universities who rely on foreign students to fund domestic ones.

Higher Education

Higher education itself is a bit of a blind spot in the Labour Party’s manifesto. They’ve acknowledged the current funding model is unsustainable and pledge to ‘create a secure future for higher education and the opportunities it creates’. It’s nice to be recognised I suppose, but there’s been no concrete offering on how to do this. Recent comments from Starmer have indicated an openness to increasing current fees to help cash strapped universities. Whether or not that will become reality is to be seen.

Instead, Labour has turned to the business world as a way to fix the system. They proposed ten-year budgets for R&D institutions to promote ‘meaningful partnerships with industry to keep the UK at the forefront of global innovation.’ This is alongside a commitment to work with universities to support spinouts and with industries to ensure start-ups have the financial access needed to grow.

Lastly, the party stated an intent to turn further education colleges into Technical Experience Colleges and improve apprenticeships to boost skills. This is essentially a continuation of the Tories plan to promote degree apprenticeships, though not quite to the same degree.

What it Means

Big question marks remain here. The problems the sector face are many, and there’s no simple fix for any of them. It’s perhaps why the party has treaded carefully on the subject throughout the election, opting to be hopeful rather than specific.

It appears the party thinks commercial partnerships will fill the gap for many institutions, but that’s only a temporary solution. Not all institutions will see the same benefit as well, with some excelling at research and development more than others.

While not exactly tangible, the biggest shift within HE from this government is the general attitude towards it. Anti-education rhetoric will no longer be pushed by the nation’s highest office, sparing many degrees the pain of regulatory cuts. It won’t reinvigorate the sector, just take pressure off it.

The Immediate Future of Higher Education

It’s interesting that as much as education took center stage in this election, the HE sector has little clarity on what to expect from its winner. What we do know is that the plans for early education, the NHS, foreign policy, and more, all have a role to play.

The pressures education faced from the previous government have alleviated for now, but that’s not enough to save a sector from this uncertainty. Instead, universities have been given more time to make a case for themselves, and adapt as they always have.