Press release

University think tank calls on the Conservatives to answer questions about higher education funding

30 Sep 2014

At the Conservative Party Conference on Tuesday 30 September in Birmingham, Professor Michael Gunn, Vice-Chancellor of Staffordshire University and chair of the university think-tank million+ will call for the party to address key questions about the future of higher education funding under a Conservative government. Professor Gunn will be sharing the platform with the Vice-Chair, All Party Parliamentary Group on Students, Eric Ollerenshaw MP and NUS President Toni Pearce with Minister Greg Clark also expected. Praising the work of former Shadow and then Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts, Professor Gunn recognises the wide brief of Greg Clark, the new Minister, and says that there are potential advantages in having a Minister who can promote the role of all universities in boosting regional growth.

However, Professor Gunn also says that higher education is not ‘job done’ for the Conservatives and sets out five key questions which the party should answer before the election:

Would a Conservative Government raise fees, and if so by how much ?

How will the additional student numbers promised by George Osborne be funded ?

As the economy recovers would the Conservatives increase the science and innovation budget but also support growth by ensuring that all universities receive funding for research ?

Would a Conservative Government value the role of universities in training teachers and properly fund universities to train the NHS workforce of the future?

Will the Conservatives commit to a review of the inclusion of international students in net migration figures if they are not prepared to match Labour’s commitment to remove students from the statistics altogether ?

Professor Gunn stresses the need for the Conservative candidates to convince universities and students in marginal seats that they value all universities and their students and that they will support the UK’s world university system rather than a two-tier model.


Professor Michael Gunn, Vice-Chancellor of Staffordshire University and chair of university think-tank million+, in a speech at Conservatives Party Conference million+ / NUS fringe, said:

I am delighted to share a platform again at the Conservative Party Conference with Toni from the NUS and for the first time with Eric, who, among his many interests, has written and spoken eloquently about the importance of regional growth – a cause which million+ also supports and about which we published a series of recommendations in our Smarter Regions Smarter Britain report which I would commend to you.

But I also want to pay tribute to the sterling work undertaken by David Willetts as both Shadow and then Universities and Science Minister. While it’s fair to say we didn’t agree with everything that happened under his watch, let me assure you that David was one of the most respected and well-liked advocates for higher education and science that the Conservative Party has had.

And we are, of course, delighted that Greg Clark, the new Cities, Universities and Science Minister, has been appointed as David’s successor.

Greg has an even wider brief than David and we are delighted that we have a Minister who can promote the role of universities in boosting growth at the heart of government.

Now none of you will be surprised that Labour is still 'humming and haaing' about its policy on fees and that the Liberal-Democrats are not going to break any more promises because – yes, you’ve guessed it – they’re going into the election with a promise to keep fees of £9000 but undertake a review of fees after 2015.

But you know for the Conservatives, higher education is not ‘job done’ either. You also have some big questions to answer and the last four years have not been plain sailing for either universities or students.

To be sure, universities have more fee income but they have seen significant cuts in funding for teaching, funding for postgraduates, in the Student Opportunity Allocation and in capital investment. Since 2012 demand has been uncertain and part-time study has fallen through the floor. At the same time private colleges have been allowed to expand virtually unregulated at taxpayers’ expense.

Of course, the Chancellor’s decision to ring-fence the science and innovation budget at a time of austerity has been warmly welcomed but in practice, this has meant a £1.1 billion reduction at the very time that our competitor countries are spending more.

So let me spell out some of the big questions that Conservative candidates need to answer prior to the May 2015 general election:

• First:  will a Conservative Government raise fees, and if so by how much?

• Second:  how will you pay in the long-term for the additional student numbers promised by George Osborne?

• Third: as the economy recovers will you increase the science and innovation budget and support growth by ensuring that all universities receive funding for research?

• Fourth:  will a Conservative Government continue to minimise the role of universities in training teachers when other countries see universities as integral to a high quality teaching profession and when there is growing evidence of a potential teacher shortage?

• Fifth:  will universities who train nurses and midwives and other NHS professional staff in liaison with hospitals and other health providers, be paid appropriately for the task?

• And finally, when polls confirm that the public do not  see international students as immigrants, will you continue to include international students in net migration figures?

But there is one other issue that the Conservatives would do well to address. Ministers like Michael Gove talked a lot about some universities but not about the universities at which the majority of students study - yet if Conservative candidates want to win in marginal seats, it is these other universities and their students that you need to convince are also important to you.

The reality is that, intended or otherwise, the government’s reforms have promoted the historic esteem of some institutions (built, I should add, on decades of public funding) over and above the earned esteem of universities which educate the majority of the nation’s graduates.

This is almost certainly not the best way of supporting a world-class university system – so a key question for all Conservatives is this: will you value all universities and all students wherever they live and study?

So let me conclude by outlining what we think a Conservative manifesto should deliver for universities and students:

First   the Conservatives do have to be crystal clear about what you will do about fees and student numbers in the future: will fees rise with inflation? Will additional numbers be funded and if so how? And will you restore direct grant to universities as many of us would advocate.

Second, as our recent million+ report The Innovation Challenge confirms, in 2012, 25 per cent of the UK’s total recurrent research funding provided by taxpayers was allocated to five universities while fifty per cent went to just twelve institutions.

Funding excellent research is one thing but hyper-concentration of research funding is entirely different. It limits talent, undermines innovation, under-values research in the social sciences, the arts and the creative industries but it also creates huge inequity in the unit of resource for students and they deserve a better research funding deal.

So a Conservative Government must deliver more balanced research funding, ensure that all universities are funded for research infrastructure and set up a new stream of funding for translational research.

And Eric, this strategy would also help address the imbalances in regional growth in which you, Greg Clark and the Chancellor are rightly interested.

Third   the Conservatives should match Labour’s commitment to take international students out of the net migration figures but that’s not all: the compliance regime being applied to universities and education providers by UKVI – the Visa and Immigration agency – is partisan, differential and opaque. A Conservative government should also review this as a matter of urgency.

Now there are sound societal reasons for the Conservatives to support universities and students which many of you will recognise but there are also sound economic reasons too: for every £1 the government spends on higher education, taxpayers get on average, an 11 per cent return. When one in three students now enters university when they are over 21, we need you to be as committed as we are to ensuring that university is not just for young people because the long-term benefits of investing in higher education far outweigh the short-term costs.

Finally let  me encourage you to be as passionate as we are about the world-class university system in the UK and promote all of our universities.

This means that universities and students will need to be assured by you that the Conservatives will not promote a two-tier system – and that all universities and students will be equally supported and valued.

And if you want to deliver not just for the students and universities of today, but also for the graduates and businesses of tomorrow, the Conservatives will need to ensure that social justice and equity do not play second fiddle to the market and that, in line with Greg Clark’s wider brief, the role of all universities in boosting regional growth is fully recognised and supported.


The next million+ and NUS fringe meeting will be at the Liberal Democrats Party Conference in Glasgow on Monday 6 October 2014, 13.00 - 14.00

Notes to Editors
1. For further information or to arrange interviews with Professor Michael Gunn, contact Rochelle Owusu- Antwi, Press and Communications officer:| 02077171658 | 07527 336795
2. million+ is a leading university think-tank. More information can be found at
3. The full million+ report ‘The Innovation Challenge: A new approach to research funding' can be found here