Despite its obvious allure, the SNP’s pledge to maintain the abolition of fees for Scottish students is largely meaningless as a tip to the balance of swing progressive voters, as the other left-leaning parties are not likely to threaten the policy either. More significant is the promise to match university funding to that in other European countries, which is more accurately a simple anti-cuts stance for the further education department. The abolition of zero-hours contract will need to coincide new commitments to grants or loans for less wealthy students in order to keep their university careers viable at a fundamental level. Non-Scottish UK students should consider what could happen to their tuition fees if the SNP instigates another independence referendum that falls in their favour this time around, although such a referendum is unlikely during the next Parliament.
Probably in an attempt to attract those students who traditionally would have voted Liberal Democrat, Labour has placed great emphasis on its tuition fee cut, although it will not reduce fees to the level they were before the 2010 election and some progressives have questioned its real effectiveness in enhancing social mobility. However, fewer of these critics will doubt the value in restricting unpaid internships to four weeks, after which companies will have to pay the intern the minimum wage. A flagship policy to be wary of is Labour’s much-vaunted guarantee to abolish “exploitative” zero-hours contract. No indication of what criteria will deem such a contract “exploitative” has hitherto been provided, and so it is possible some of the jobs that many students rely on to support themselves could be lost.
The Green Party has experienced one of the most dramatic increases in interest from the student population over the last Parliament, especially owing to the disenchantment voters feel with the Liberal Democrats following their term in government. The radicalism of their programmes – most notably including the abolition of both tuition fees and accrued student debt – suggests a struggle with Labour to capture the support of university seats, most of which elect parties with progressive inclinations. Their proposal of a universal “Citizen Income” is expected to replace the student loan system. Furthermore, with the reintroduction of block grants which universities are able to allocate as they wish, the potential for greater financial support for Arts and Humanities students in postgraduate study is tangible. All of this, coupled with the limitation of unpaid internships, makes for happy reading for progressives, but the question of the fiscal viability of all of these projects looms ominously in the background of what could prove an undeliverable set of commitments.
UKIP has put forth a manifesto for students that is on equal-footing with the Green Party in terms of radicalism. The overarching goal of the party to secure the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union will have obvious ramifications for those coming to study for free from the European Economic Area, as they will be charged the same fees as other international students. As part of this, all non-UK students will be unable to access NHS healthcare, making it necessary for them to provide private insurance during their course of study, dramatically curtailing the financial viability of study in the UK. The abolition of tuition fees for those studying STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine) subjects may seem like a common-sense way of propelling the UK’s research sector, but the hit that Arts and Humanities departments will most likely take as a result will be significant. Also students intending to study abroad should be aware of how withdrawal from the EU could affect the availability of the popular Erasmus programme.
In regards to universities, much energy within the Liberal Democrats over the past weeks has been spent defending its discredited record concerning tuition fees as opposed to devising new policies for students. Instead, a number of reviews have been proposed, most notably into the financial support available for disadvantaged students and the currently endemic practice of unpaid internships. If these reviews come to fruition, then there may be significant gains for students originating from more modest backgrounds, but any tangible change seems currently distant. The planned ⅔ reduction in bus travel for those of university age is a gimmick at best. It may well transpire that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote for business-as-usual.
The Conservative Party has never been noted for its following amongst students, and little attention is paid to them, especially undergraduates, in their manifesto. However, the proposition of a loan system for postgraduate research will give students, principally those studying the sciences, an opportunity to pursue their education further that may not have previously been financially viable. The introduction and promotion of shorter two-year courses will saddle some students of tomorrow with less debt, but there is no indication of whether there will be any disparity in job opportunities for those who opt for these briefer degrees. With other further education left exposed as other departments are ringfenced from the next round of proposed austerity measures, a Conservative government is likely to hit university departments disproportionately heavily.
The student vote has never been regarded as a particularly dominant factor in UK general elections, and so it is no surprise that, in the midst of concerns about the fragility of the economic recovery and immigration, the three major parties have not paid major attention to developing policies for those at university. Perhaps memories of the volatile demonstrations in London following the increase in tuition fees in 2010 linger in the minds of many of the political class, dissuading them from making grand or concrete promises. Instead, the parties that are most likely to install a prime minister in Number 10 and ministers in the cabinet have resorted to guarded and modest reforms for students. Not one is daring to revert tuition fees to its previous figure or oppose all unpaid internships on the grounds of principal. Within the manifestos of the smaller parties, who have all styled themselves as challengers to the traditional establishment parties and who may be attempting to capitalise on the perceived radicalism of students, universities feature much more heavily. However, these are parties that, if in government, will almost certainly be junior partners of a coalition may only be able to roll out a highly diluted form of their proposed reforms. Bear in mind what could happen to the students of today and tomorrow when you approach the ballot box in May, but don’t bet on a revolution in student finance or tuition fees any time soon.