In a shocking result in the 2015 British elections, Prime Minister David Cameron won re-election and returned to Number 10 Downing Street with a slim yet outright majority in the House of Commons. An election that, due to the rise of traditionally minor nationalist parties just weeks earlier, was heralded as the end of the two-party system ended with a victory for one of the two major parties.
Unlike in so many elections, higher education policy positions were a topic of great debate this year, providing major and minor parties alike the opportunity to share their visions for the future of British higher education. The lessons of the 2015 British election not only provide a fantastic microcosm of the past five years of British politics, but also have great implications for the 2016 presidential race in the United States.
Among higher education policy issues in the United Kingdom in the past decade, perhaps no issue has gained more media attention than tuition (frequently called fees in Britain). Labour governments under Tony Blair introduced tuition and fees to the UK higher education system for the first time in 1998, and increased the £1,000 ($1,548) tuition cap to £3,000 ($4,647) in 2004. In 2009, it became clear that universities needed increased funding. John Browne, formerly the head of the energy company BP, chaired a commission that examined higher education and eventually advocated for no tuition caps and increasing the availability of student loans.
In 2010, public disapproval of the Labour government was high, and for those voters who didn’t approve of the Tories, either, the Liberal Democrats provided an alternative. Youth voters were drawn to the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and his pledge not to raise tuition, and voted for the party in droves. No party won a majority in Parliament, so the Liberal Democrats and Tories joined forces in a coalition government. As junior partners in the Conservative-led governing coalition, the Liberal Democrats tried to serve as a moderating force -- a goal that ultimately proved unsuccessful when they went back on their pledge and voted for a Tory proposal to increase the tuition cap to £9,000.
The Liberal Democrats paid dearly for not following through on their no tuition increases pledge. In a nationally televised appearance on a question and answer show, Clegg was asked by an audience member, “Your promise on student loans has destroyed your reputation -- why would we believe anything else you say?”
The tuition flip-flop had the same effect on Clegg that the “Read my lips: No new taxes” pledge had on President George H. W. Bush -- it provided ammunition for opponents of the Liberal Democrats, and cast doubt on Clegg’s trustworthiness. The raise of fees, seen as a Tory policy, also built upon the opposition narrative that Clegg and the Liberal Democrats weren’t doing enough to stave off the unpopular austerity measures the majority Conservative government wanted to enact. By election night, the Liberal Democrats’ image was so badly damaged that they were reduced to 8 seats from 57. Of those eight members of Parliament, four had broken party ranks and voted against the tuition increases.
Similarities in party platforms with regard to higher education also dramatically changed the outcome of the election, as differentiation in policies shed some spotlight on traditionally minor parties. The Labour and Conservative parties proposed very similar research funding and tech transfer policies. The Tories called for university enterprise zones that would connect university research with potential entrepreneurs and spin-off businesses in the mold of Silicon Valley or North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. Labour proposed “knowledge clusters” much the same way -- areas where universities would build ties with industry.
The two parties also stated that they were committed to maintaining research funding, but provided few specifics as to how they would do so. The Liberal Democrats were the only major party to differ in these areas, actually calling for greater investment in research funding and changes to employment law that would allow university students from abroad the ability to stay in the U.K. after graduation to contribute to the knowledge economy of the country. Yet, because of the party’s history on switching positions on tuition, many felt the differing ideas were unattainable in a coalition government at best, and dishonest at worst.
Such similarities among the major parties wouldn’t normally make a major difference in an election outcome, but traditionally minor parties used the similarities to their advantage. The Scottish National Party argued that the Labour Party had lost sight of its socialist roots and become too much like the Conservative party. Any similar policies between the two main parties, especially in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum in which both parties worked together to defeat the SNP, played directly into the SNP’s narrative.
In the one area where Labour and the Tories disagreed -- tuition caps -- Scottish voters paid no attention. Labour’s proposed cap reduction from £9,000 to £6,000 fell on deaf ears north of Hadrian’s Wall, as the SNP had already provided free tuition and fees for Scottish students at Scottish universities through legislation at the regional level. When Scottish voters tried to determine which party had the best chance of success in breaking up the perceived Labour-Tory policy monopoly, they had to choose between the Liberal Democrats with their poor track record on tuition fees or the party that brought free higher education to Scotland.
On Election Day, the traditionally Labour- and Liberal Democrat-friendly Scots turned to the SNP, and the nationalist party won 56 of 59 seats in Scotland. In fact, a 20-year-old university student who campaigned on students’ issues and defeated a Labour Party leader became the youngest member of the House of Commons in over a century when she filled one of those 56 seats.
The Scots weren’t the only minor party to take advantage of higher education policy to build their own agenda. The pro-environment Green Party promised to erase all student debt and cap pay for the highest earners at large firms like universities at 10 times that of the lowest wage earner. Plaid Cymru, a Welsh nationalist party, dedicated to eventual independence for Wales, argued for a work visa program for foreign students similar to that of the Liberal Democrats to ensure the continued economic health of the Welsh aerospace and electronics industries.
On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the far-right U.K. Independence Party used differentiation in its higher education platform to draw attention to its main political goal of leaving the European Union. UKIP, virulently opposed to E.U. membership and patently anti-immigration, proposed a tuition policy for students from outside of the U.K. that could only be achieved if the United Kingdom were to leave the E.U. Students from abroad, even those from fellow E.U. countries, would have to pay higher tuition fees than domestic students, a policy that is illegal under European Union law.
Higher education policies became a way for minor parties to differentiate themselves from the “business as usual” candidates, and some were quite successful in that effort.
The lessons of the 2015 U.K. election certainly apply to next year’s U.S. presidential election. While the rise of a Texas national party or complete implosion of the Democratic Party seems highly unlikely, presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle are likely to use their positions on higher education issues in ways that fit with the personal narrative they try to present. Governor Scott Walker has already channeled the Tory government with his proposed cuts to the University of Wisconsin. He cites this austerity measure as an example of his commitment to fiscal stability and a low-taxes government. Expect Marco Rubio to tout the bipartisan work he has done with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden as an example of the ways in which he rises above traditional partisan politics -- not exactly the same as creating a third party, but not particularly different in its purpose, either.
Presidential candidates should look to the minority parties of the United Kingdom for guidance on how to energize voters. Rand Paul’s proposed elimination of the Department of Education will certainly energize his base the same way UKIP energizes theirs through discussion of tuition policies in a Britain free of the European Union. Bernie Sanders’s belief that higher education should be a right, and that higher education should be free, has more in common with the stated policy positions of the SNP in Scotland than the Democrats in the United States. Those positions, however, will invigorate many of the left-wing youth of the Democratic Party and could greatly increase turnout even if Senator Sanders isn’t on the ballot in November of 2016.
Finally, presidential candidates should also heed the lessons of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. Going back on promises related to higher education could result in dramatic losses in the next election. While many voters won’t consider the state of their local university on election day, a high profile flip-flop on higher education could indicate a level of dishonesty to which no re-election-seeking politician would ever want to ascribe.