Dowining StreetLast year in our publication Open for Business, we called upon the UK to ‘create the workforce of the future, drawing on the world’s brightest and best and giving every UK citizen the opportunity to be part of this’.

For a research system to thrive, it needs talented and skilled people to fuel it. Ensuring there are the skilled people to do research means both investing in UK skills development and ‘attracting a diverse mix of entrepreneurs and researchers from home and abroad’.

In our second blog, we take a look at what the main political party manifestos have to say about skills and people – in particular on education and immigration.

Education

The proposed lifting of the ban on new selective schools by the Conservative Party is arguably the most high-profile education policy within the various manifestos. UKIP also supports the introduction of new grammar schools, whilst all other major Political Parties have explicitly opposed this in their manifestos. The Society’s response to the Government’s Green Paper proposing selective schooling highlighted the lack of evidence that overall educational standards for STEM subjects in England would be improved by an increase in the number of places in selective schools.  Our response also questioned the use of academic selection for improving social mobility. Research commissioned by the Society found that in wholly selective local authorities, students receiving free school meals (FSM) achieve lower grades in GCSE mathematics, and are less likely to take double or triple science at GCSE.

Bucking the trend from previous manifestos, there are few direct references to STEM. There are however plenty of initiatives which will have an impact on STEM education and skills once you scratch beneath the surface.

The Conservatives place a focus on technology, proposing  new technology qualifications, T-levels, as well as establishing new Institutes of Technology (backed by leading employers and linked to Universities) which would provide courses at degree level and above, specialising in technical disciplines.

The Liberal Democrats outline plans to improve teacher recruitment in shortage areas such as STEM by prioritising closer partnerships with Universities and specialist routes to teaching (such as Teach First) in order to improve initial teacher training. The Conservatives have also advocated an enhanced role for Universities, in particular at a community level, including proposals for Universities to sponsor local schools. In addition they have committed to continue to fund schemes to get graduates from leading universities to serve in schools, police forces, prisons and social care.

The parties’ proposals on Higher Education largely converge around tuition fees. The Conservative Party advocate the status quo. The Labour Party alongside the Green Party, have in contrast pledged to abolish tuition fees and reintroduce maintenance grants. The SNP have reiterated their commitment to continuing tuition free university education in Scotland, whilst the Lib Dems appear to be offering a position somewhere in between the two where they would reintroduce maintenance grants for the poorest students. In addition, the Labour Party, Lib Dems, SNP and Greens have all indicated their support for continued participation in Erasmus+, a scheme which offers opportunities for individuals from participant states to study, work teach and train abroad in Europe.

A newer trend in the manifestos is an increased focus on lifelong learning and upskilling. With all of the major parties acknowledging rapid developments in technology, and in particular digital technology, lifelong learning has emerged as a central pillar within many of their education policies. The Conservatives, have proposed a national retraining scheme, as well as introducing a right to lifelong learning, specifically in digital skills. Labour have proposed introducing free, lifelong learning in Further Education colleges, enabling everyone to upskill or retrain at any point in their life. Similarly, the Lib Dems have included a number of proposals ranging from apprenticeships to increased funding for mature adult and part-time learning and training, as well as an aim to meet all basic skills needs including literacy, numeracy and digital skills by 2030.

Immigration

In the run up to the triggering of Article 50, one of the most contentious issues was the status of EEA nationals living in the UK and their rights post-Brexit. The Society has repeatedly called for EEA nationals already in the UK, and their families, to urgently be given concrete assurances that they will be able to live and work in the UK should their existing right to work as citizens of EEA countries change.  This is important for research, with 17% of academic staff at UK HEIs coming from elsewhere in the EU.

Most political parties including Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Greens have called for a unilateral guarantee for the preservation of the rights of EEA nationals currently resident in the UK. The Conservative Government have indicated that this is a priority for negotiations, but they will not commit to a guarantee until reciprocal agreements for UK nationals residing in other EU countries have also been agreed.

On broader immigration policy, the Society has called for the next government to implement a system which allows the UK to access the skills it needs and supports the UK’s aim to be one of the best places in the world to research and innovate.

There is limited detail on broader immigration policies in the manifestos, but they do provide a sense of each parties’ general approach.

The Conservative Party have restated their commitment to cap net-migration in the tens of thousands, and, alongside UKIP, are the only party to propose a cap. On freedom of movement, both the Conservatives and Labour Party have been clear that post-Brexit, there will be no continuation of freedom of movement. In contrast, the Liberal Democrats have argued that its continuation should be a priority in Brexit negotiations.

Those of you who followed the Higher Education and Research Bill closely will recall the heated debates over whether international students should be included in the overall immigration figures. Unsurprisingly, in the weeks that have passed since the Bill became an Act, there has been little change, with the Conservatives still firmly committed to including them in the figures and proposing tougher student visa requirements with no post-study work visas unless new and more stringent criteria are met, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats both opposed.

The Conservatives explicitly recognise the importance of mobility to research and state that they will enable leading scientists from around the world to work in the UK. They plan to commission the Migration Advisory Committee to look at how the visa system can be improved for workers in sectors of strategic importance (also naming the digital sector as a specific example of where this is needed).

Labour have been less specific but have said that a future system may include, employer sponsorship, work permits, visa regulations or a mix of all. The Liberal Democrats have indicated that their immigration system would continue to allow high-skilled immigration to support key sectors of the economy, and notably have indicated they will reinstate post-study work visas for graduates in STEM who find suitable employment within 6 months. The SNP have also reaffirmed their support for a post-study work visa to ‘attract and retain the skills Scotland needs’.

The Society’s recent report demonstrates the importance of mobility for science and will inform our engagement as the next government develops its approach to immigration.