What Have Former Prime Ministers Done for Higher Education?

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UK Higher Education has always been proud of its political neutrality. Yet, the different political governments have passed bills throughout the years that have affected the Higher Education environment and more specifically student life. With the upcoming General Election next June, here is a little reminder of what the different governments have done to shape our current Higher Education experience.

First, most of the universities from the 19th century were effectively established by acts passed in the Parliament and initiated by the Government. One of the most famous examples is the establishment of the federal University of London decided in 1898 under the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. After World War One, Higher Education underwent a financial crises, leading to the formation of the University Grants Committee, and thus government funding. The higher demand for Higher Education after World War Two led to an ease in achieving the University status after the Robbins Report’s conclusion for the need of the immediate expansion of universities. This was achieved under the Conservative Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home.

One of the biggest opportunities students have at university is going abroad for a year. Most of them go to Europe with the Erasmus programme, which nearly wasn’t established. Indeed, in 1986 the European Commission proposed the programme but UK, France and Germany opposed it because they already had strong similar national schemes. However, they finally accepted a revised scheme in 1987 under the government of Margaret Thatcher. Replaced several times the framework is now called Erasmus+; supposed to last until 2020, it is an investment of 14.7 billion euro spent around education, training and sport. Since last year’s Brexit vote it has been a sensitive subject, as around 14,600 British students went abroad with the scheme in 2012/2013.

Let’s discuss one of the most important and critical subjects: tuition fees. Indeed, less than 20 years ago, no tuition fee was required to enrol at a university. They were enacted by the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 under Tony Blair’s Labour government, after abolishing the maintenance grant. This was a response to the inquiry, of the previous Conservative Prime Minister John Mayor, which claimed that additional funding would be needed throughout the next few years to expand student enrolment and academic infrastructure. After Blair’s re-election, a new Act was passed in 2004 leading to a further raise in the fees to £3,000 in England and Wales. Finally, following the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance in 2010, a further increase to the current £9,000 was reached and applied under David Cameron. This has been closely followed by the controversial new rise due to inflation.

It has to be said that even if Higher Education wishes to stay away from politics, it was politically created and was helped by the Government to survive during some major events of the 20th century. Yet, politics will always try to influence Higher Education, especially after the Brexit vote. This new election could decide what will shape the next great change for Higher Education.

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