The Queen’s Speech

John Hogan, Registrar at Newcastle University, reflects on yesterday’s Queen’s speech and what it means for HE. Or not.

When approached last week by Catherine in the AHUA office to write a short blog on the “outcomes of the Queen’s speech for HE next week” I had an image of Her Majesty arriving at Woburn House to give a rousing speech on the benefits of higher education to the assembled cheering ranks of vice-chancellors, principals and presidents followed perhaps by a round of mass knightings and dameings. But then reality struck and I needed to comment on the speech delivered by the Queen in the House of Lords (because she is not allowed in the House of Commons) on the morning of 27th May 2015.

It is, of course, not her speech but it was the first official occasion since 1996 that a Conservative only government has set out its policies for a parliamentary session. Many new students commencing this September were not even born then.

So what did it say about higher education? Nothing. But I have got 450+ words to go so I had better qualify that – nothing directly but there are implications.

There was the dog that did not bark. There was no announcement about a higher education bill. This is despite a commitment to future legislation contained in the 2011 White Paper Students at the Heart of the System. The White Paper stated that such legislation was required in order to “introduce a simpler, more transparent regulatory regime covering all institutions wanting to be recognised in the English higher education system” but it was thought that such legislation would have to await the end of the Coalition because the debate about fees was too toxic to re-open. Despite a small Conservative majority perhaps it still is. So the regulatory loose ends will remain loose for at least one more session of Parliament. This has particular implications for the rapidly growing private sector.

And there was the English bulldog that did. The headlines from the Queen’s speech will include the promised bill to pave the way for an in/out referendum on European Union membership to be held before the end of 2017, bills on devolution and a change in parliamentary procedure to ensure English votes on English laws. Universities do well out of Europe and opposition to an out vote is likely to be common throughout higher education.

The commitments in the Conservatives’ manifesto to higher education were around aspiration and immigration. On aspiration the pledge was “We will ensure that if you want to go to university, you can” which is about the abolition of the cap on undergraduate numbers and the introduction of postgraduate loans. But there is no need for new legislation to achieve these – indeed they are already in place for this September.

On immigration the Conservatives were the party that wished to retain students in the net migration figures so the commitment in the Queen’s Speech of further measures to control immigration could well have implications. The manifesto pledges to “reform the student visa system with new measures to tackle abuse and reduce the numbers of students overstaying once their visas expire”. Perhaps more alarmingly for higher education the “introduction of exit checks will allow us to place more responsibility on visa sponsors for migrants who overstay” and “targeted sanctions for those colleges or businesses that fail to ensure that migrants comply with the terms of their visa”. Which raises a ‘counting them all in and counting them all out again’ responsibility. I now have five staff at Newcastle whose exclusive role is visa and immigration work all appointed in the last five years – I will not look forward to doubling this number in the next five.