Policy Update – November 2023

Ed Bridges, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Academy of Social Sciences 

Conference roundup

The pop-up stands have been packed away, the lukewarm white wine at fringe events has been drunk, and the glitter has been hoovered up. But what did the parties promise to do? The clearest way to see the two parties’ offers is by looking at this table from Research Professional – but readers looking for mentions of the social sciences will be disappointed. The Academy are doing our bit to address that with our Election 24 project, as we seek to foreground social science evidence relevant to policy debates for a likely General Election next year.

At the Conservative conference in Manchester, the most interesting titbit was George Freeman (UK Government Science Minister) arguing that the UK will not succeed in becoming a science superpower without a “fundamental shift” in the perception of place in R&D and innovation. He also added his belief that the UK will not achieve its ambitions on science and technology behind a “visa wall”, adding that he would work with ministerial colleagues “to build a [visa] framework that supports each sector and each cluster”. Separately, the minister indicated (£) that elements of the backup Pioneer scheme may still be implemented alongside the Horizon deal, hinting that these areas could include “interdisciplinary, commercial, longer-term fellowships”.

The Prime Minister in his speech was effusive about the importance of education, calling it “the closest thing we have to a silver bullet” for growth and productivity – but alas this enthusiasm did not extend to higher education. Instead, Mr Sunak trod the now-familiar road of criticising “rip-off degrees” and courses not leading to graduate-level jobs. He also pledged to introduce an “Advanced British Standard” (in reality an Advanced English Standard unless the devolved governments also choose to adopt it), a new 16-to-19 qualification combining elements of A-levels and T-levels into a single qualification, with the aim of providing parity of esteem between academic and technical qualifications. This would also provide the PM with a route to meet his aim of mandatory maths education to 18 in England. This article (by our Fellow, Simon Jenkins) is an excellent explanation of why the proposed reforms are unlikely to see the light of day.


  • Gillian Keegan, Education Secretary for England, announced minimum service levels for universities in a move likely to stoke tensions ahead of a further UCU industrial action ballot in the coming weeks.
  • Michelle Donelan, England’s Science & Tech Minister, attacked ‘creeping wokeism’ in scientific research.
  • David Willetts, former Universities & Science Minister for England (and AcSS Fellow), called for a review of tuition fee levels every five years to ensure they were not eroded by inflation.

At Labour conference, even the Shadow Cabinet’s big set-piece speeches indicated a modest and cautious approach. The furthest that the Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, went was to promise “once in a generation” planning reforms to “accelerate the building of critical infrastructure for energy, transport and housing, to fast-track battery factories, life sciences and 5G”. Meanwhile, the Shadow Innovation Minister, Chi Onwurah, pledged to “ensure that universities can be engines of local growth… empowering researchers, entrepreneurs and innovators… forging partnerships with universities and businesses around the UK to tackle the challenges that we face, and making the most of the UK’s comparative advantage”. More concretely, Shadow Science Minister for England, Peter Kyle, promised that a Labour UK Government would implement ten-year research and development budgets to build long-term partnerships and lead to investment in new technology and infrastructure.

Overall analysis of Labour’s pledges suggests that the warm words translate into thin gruel for the HE and research sectors, with a very good WonkHE article assiduously noting that “the “please sir, can I have some more” message is fading into the background of a cacophony of calls from every bit of austerity-hit Britain”.

With the Union Parliament now back from conference recess, and with those byelection results putting MPs’ own majorities into sharp focus, we are now into election season in all but name. The coming months should see both parties’ spokespeople asked serious questions about the detail of their proposals.