© Steve Marvell, Flickr
© Steve Marvell, Flickr

I have been taking a break from blogging since I finished my online book, Teaching in a Digital Age.

I’ve just started a four week holiday in Europe, and happened to be in England visiting family during the recent election, which the Conservatives won reasonably comfortably, so they are not dependent on votes from other parties to govern.

The state of the union

The election highlighted a very disunited United Kingdom. The Scottish National Party swept Scotland, winning 56 of 59 seats, the Conservatives won England, Northern Ireland was split between Protestant and Catholic parties, and Labour won Wales, although with fewer seats than before.

Labour did much more poorly than expected, and the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative’s coalition partner in the previous government, were demolished, going from 57 MPs to eight. The leaders of three opposition parties (Labour, Lib Dems and the UK Independent Party) all resigned.

Implications for higher education

What does this mean for higher education in the U.K.? Times Higher Education has offered the following analysis:

  • the Conservatives are committed to a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU by 2017. If Britain pulls out, UK universities will miss out on the current £1.2 billion ($2.15 billion) in research grants they currently receive from the EU;
  • the Conservatives are likely to raise the current £9000 ($16,000) annual university tuition fees even further;
  • tighter immigration policies will result in fewer international students;
  • a likely move to funding by results, in terms of (so far undefined) quality, which probably means more funding to Oxford, Cambridge and a few other elite UK universities, and less for the rest
  • continued funding support for ‘world-leading science’.

Implications for Canada

There are no obvious implications, but Conservative Party leaders in Canada, the UK and Australia do talk to one another and exchange ideas, and there are reasonable grounds to fear that the U.K. tuition fee system could influence the Harper government’s thinking, seeing that it did not prevent the U.K. Conservatives from being re-elected. However, the devolved provincial system in Canada offers some protection from extremist policies in education.

The main lesson though is likely to be political. The devastation of the Lib Dems, who propped up the Conservative minority government through a formal coalition, with some cabinet seats for the Lib Dems, was a direct result of supporting votes when in government that were contrary to the policies and principles on which they were elected.

Many English voters appeared to be scared by a media blitz that suggested that Labour would form a coalition with the Scottish National Party, so switched their votes to the Conservatives, which must be a significant message for Thomas Mulcair, dependent as he is on many seats in Quebec. UKIP, the ultra-nationalist party, took as many votes from Labour as it did from the Conservatives and failed to gain a toe-hold in Parliament, despite getting over 12 per cent of the votes.

Most of all though the Labour platform has moved so far to the right that it reflected a watered-down Conservative platform, a kinder form of free market politics. In fact Labour offered for the many voters in England who are bitterly opposed to the Conservative policies few real alternatives. Austerity and a balanced budget was the main economic plank of both parties. Distinguishing their economic policies from the Conservatives is probably going to be a significant issue for the Canadian Liberals, if they are to have a hope of winning.

In the meantime, Britain’s post-imperial decline seems set to accelerate, as the divide between rich and poor grows even greater, and regional forces start to tear it apart.


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