What impact will the election outcome, and any manifesto commitments, have on science and engineering over the next Parliament?

It is difficult to see a return to business as usual for the Conservatives as they return to Government lacking a majority, and supported by the DUP’s 10 MPs.

This election result is a combination of many factors but it gives a strong message from the UK population that the Conservatives’ version of the future doesn’t have quite so much support as Number 10 had been led to believe. This briefing looks at the commitments the Conservatives and the DUP made in the run-up to the election and what the science and engineering community can expect from a minority government led by Theresa May.  

For an election that was called to give the government a clear mandate for their Brexit plans, we have learnt little more about the Conservative’s plans or intentions. The manifesto confirmed the plan is to leave the single market and customs union, end free movement, and that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. We’d heard this before the election was called. However, having it in the manifesto in theory meant that by convention the government should have an easier run of it as and when policies are implemented and related legislation is put to parliament. Instead it will now be more difficult. The backdrop has changed but these headline Conservative Brexit commitments will likely remain a cause for concern for many in the sector.

Without a majority in parliament, negotiation and compromise will likely be needed at home before taking proposals to our EU partners. Although the DUP supported a vote to leave the EU in the referendum, their stance on what Brexit should look like could be a moderating force as negotiations develop.

The top three (of 30) priorities the DUP sets out in their manifesto relating to the EU negotiations are:

  1. Successful outward-looking knowledge-based economy in Northern Ireland
  2. Ease of trade with the Irish Republic and throughout the European Union
  3. Maintenance of the Common Travel Area

Repeatedly the top priority we hear from members is ensuring that the UK is open and welcoming to researchers, innovators and specialist technicians amid fierce global competition for talent and skills. Immigration was always expected to be a Brexit battleground, and now there will be additional pressure on the government to review its stance. Particularly as an essential feature of the DUP’s Brexit plans is maintenance of the common travel area and a frictionless border with the Republic of Ireland.

Whether and how free movement will end is a matter for the negotiations. But much of what replaces it is in the hands of Theresa May’s government. Even granting residency and work rights to EU nationals already in the UK is technically a matter of domestic policy.

In their manifesto, the Conservative narrative is positive about attracting scientists and says they “will increase the number of scientists working in the UK and enable leading scientists from around the world to work here” suggesting that the concerns from the sector have been heard at the top. The DUP call for an “effective immigration policy which meets the skills, labour and security needs of the UK”, that the “rights of British citizens in the EU and those from EU member states living here safeguarded”, and that “Higher and further education continue to attract international expertise and collaboration”.

So, where’s the cause for concern? The Conservative manifesto also commits to continuing to “bear down on immigration from outside the European Union” and propose a suite of policies to make it more difficult and the UK a less attractive destination for scientists, engineers and students alike. For instance, they propose increasing the health surcharge migrants must pay each year, and doubling the immigration skills charge that employers must pay to hire a skilled non-EU worker. The widely-publicised aim of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands remains. If the anticipated immigration white paper and potential Bill go ahead it will likely be a more moderate version of what we could have otherwise expected.

However, the longstanding Conservative cap on Tier 2 visas for skilled workers of 20,700 a year is notable by its absence. So perhaps we will now see the cap removed as CaSE and others have called for - a bit of light in an area of Conservative policy that is arguably one of the most challenging for science and engineering.

There is nervousness too about the regulatory environment – particularly what happens on day 1 after Brexit. The Conservative manifesto speaks of some areas where the government wants to be regulatory world leaders, including in the use of personal data and the internet, and the digital economy. But we are calling for the government to first and foremost seek stability and harmonisation of regulation and standards in the negotiations, and to ensure that they have access to the substantial scientific and technical advice that will be needed. The DUP doesn’t make many mentions of regulation but do speak of seeking to “begin the groundwork needed to capitalise on the trade opportunities that the UK leaving the EU will present”.

There were some snippets in the manifesto that relate to the direction the government will take in other areas that are negotiation priorities for science and engineering, such as, the option for participation in some EU programmes has been left open as an option but there are no firm commitments. The DUP specifically highlight participation in research programmes saying they want to see “continued participation in funding programmes that have been proven to be of benefit and are open to non-EU members e.g. research funding”. It isn’t top of their priorities list but the research and innovation community may have an ally in seeking continued participation in priority EU programmes.

Despite Brexit being the biggest single feature of this upcoming Parliament, the domestic policy environment will significantly affect the health of science and engineering in the UK alongside the negotiation outcomes. The Conservative manifesto largely confirmed existing direction of travel but there were some new commitments.

CaSE has today published our vision for science and engineering and our priorities for the new government in six key areas – education, immigration, collaboration, investment, regulation and evidence. You can also browse through the full set of Conservative and DUP commitments in each area in our manifesto analysis.

Here we highlight a few headlines in investment, education and evidence.

Investment

The industrial strategy looks set to go ahead as planned but with a target for R&D investment to reach 2.4% by 2027. And the DUP “supports the delivery of an ambitious new Industrial Strategy for Northern Ireland which is aimed at increasing our competitiveness and ensuring inclusive growth.” More specifically they set out that they want it to be centred on:

  • Accelerating innovation and research;
  • Enhancing education, skills and employability;
  • Driving inclusive, sustainable growth;
  • Succeeding in global markets; and
  • Building the best economic infrastructure.

They mention Northern Irish strength in sectors such as cyber security, agri-foods, advanced engineering and materials handling and set out their ambition of the industrial strategy taking a “ten years plus view”.

Education

The Conservative manifesto committed to increasing the overall schools budget by £4 billion by 2022, opening a specialist maths school in every major city in England, establishing new institutes of technology, create 3 million apprenticeships by 2020, replace existing technical qualifications with T-levels, and to launch a major review of tertiary education funding. If those working in education were hoping for some policy stability, it seems unlikely.

The DUP have said they “will fight for sufficient resources to be provided for frontline schools’ budgets, and for greater autonomy in decision making for schools. We support academic selection, the maintenance of the Dickson Plan, and greater value being placed on vocational qualifications.” So they seem to support some of the direction of travel from the Conservatives, however, with education being a devolved matter it isn’t the DUP that would put a spanner in the works, but rather how the Conservative’s much anticipated education bill will fare in parliament.

In the run-up to the election I repeatedly heard that if the next government wants to make any progress in any other education and skills policies, from primary through to further education, they must focus on teachers. Not only are there shortfalls in the number of entries to teacher training in these subjects but science and maths teachers are leaving the profession at a higher rate than teachers of other subjects.

Conservative policies do include some measures to support teachers, such as providing bursaries for top graduates and “forgiveness” of student loan debt while teaching. But there is more of a focus on changes to institutions, facilities and what is being taught, such as expecting every 11-year old to know their times tables off by heart and for 90 per cent of pupils to be studying the EBacc combination of academic GCSEs by 2025. In reality, without teachers in core subjects such as science and maths it will be difficult to deliver these commitments.

The same is true in further education. Significant effort, and funding, will need to go into equipping colleges with teachers if the policy focus on vocational and technical education is to be delivered.

From manifestos, there is broad support across the political spectrum for the apprenticeship levy, including the DUP who want to see “continued delivery of the reformed apprenticeships and youth training systems” and “a better deal for NI business from the Apprenticeship Levy”.

From current Conservative commitments, there is no guarantee the levy will result in greater numbers of highly skilled STEM workers. To capitalise on such support the Government must continue to listen to employers, including research charities and universities along with industry, to ensure it delivers for science and engineering.

Evidence

In an age of fake news and widespread misinformation, we want to see government taking an increasingly evidence-informed approach to policymaking, particularly on often poorly handled headline issues such as the NHS, education and immigration. This isn’t a point of principle, it would mean expertise, evidence and knowledge can be used to make policies smarter and, ultimately, lives better. In fact, successfully delivering on many of the parties’ commitments requires robust advice structures and processes to be in place, something we’ll be following up the next government based on our recent evidence report.

From the manifestos, we only get hints of the approach each party takes to evidence. In reality, every party supports the idea of ensuring evidence informs policy decisions when asked, but the real test is in how government’s act. There is nothing specific in the DUP manifesto, but concerns about the approaches they’ve taken to scientific issues in the past aren’t hard to come by.

Thinking about circumstances rather commitments, arguably the government was lacking an effective opposition in the last parliament, and with a majority was able to push ahead without sufficient scrutiny and challenge. An energised opposition and a minority in the Commons will hopefully make sloppy policy making more difficult. This new set of circumstances could result in the Government needing to be much more transparent about the basis on which their positions are built and take a more evidence based approach to bring others with them. We’ll certainly be seeking to make that case to them.

 

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