28 January 2020: Higher Education Policy 2020

Secretariat 28 January 2020


This meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary University Group will consider what we can expect in higher education policy in 2020, with contributions from speakers with a range of insight and experience including the current Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Minister. As this is the first meeting since the election of the new government, it is an opportune time to consider manifesto commitments, explore the implications of existing announcements and look ahead to the themes likely to emerge in 2020.

This guide will give further information on the Government’s Higher Education policy announcements, key future considerations, relevant resources and dates to be aware of in the coming months.

Government’s Higher Education policy announcements

Since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in July 2019, his government has outlined a number of significant policies for the higher education sector. The Conservative’s 2019 election manifesto contained several additional commitments that we can expect to be implemented in the coming months and years.


Fast-Track Visa Route

In December, Home secretary Priti Patel announced an immediate increase in accelerated visas for fellowships in Science and Research from 62 to more than 120. In line with the current process, individuals who receive these fellowships will only need to provide a letter from the relevant funding organisation, which will see them fast-tracked to the Home Office / UKVI visa application stage where immigration checks will be carried out.

As announced in August 2019, the Home Office will be bringing forward the plans to abolish the cap on the numbers under the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) route and an accelerated path to settlement for those who arrive under this scheme. The Home Office is working to implement these changes early this year.

Post-study Work

In September, the Department for Education announced that international students that had successfully completed a degree programme at a UK university will be able to stay in the UK to live and work for two years post-graduation.

The visa will allow eligible students to work, or look for work, in any career or position of their choice, for two years after completing their studies.

There will be no limit on the number of students that can stay in the UK under this route, and there will be no minimum skill-level requirement for their employment.

The new Graduate route will launch for the 2020/21 intake of students to university. After the two years, they will be able to switch onto the skilled work visa if they find a job which meets the skill requirement of the route. Further details will be announced in due course.

Research and Development

Investment in PhD researchers

Chris Skidmore announced a £370million investment in new PhD researchers. Of this, £200 million will fund 1,000 new PhD places over the next 5 years to study AI. A further £170 million will fund 1,700 places to study PhDs in biosciences. He also announced an additional £37.5 million for Turing AI Fellowships and a new investment of £13 million to build new AI conversion courses from 2020.

Health workforce

Return of NHS bursaries

From September 2020, students on health programmes of will receive a bursary of at least £5,000 a year, with up to £3,000 further funding available for eligible students, including for:

  • specialist disciplines that struggle to recruit, including mental health
  • an additional childcare allowance, on top of the £1,000 already on offer
  • areas of the country which have seen a decrease in people accepted on some nursing, midwifery and allied health courses over the past year Students will also be able to continue to access funding for tuition and maintenance loans from the Student Loans Company.

Universities’ Civic role

The Department for Education (DfE) has awarded £50,000 funding to the UPP Foundation to help establish a Civic University Network. The Network will work to support the growing Civic University Agreements (CUA) movement by sharing best practice between participating universities, develop a peer review scheme so that universities increase their civic impact, and connect universities with other sectors which are prioritising issues around ‘place’ to level up the economy and society. Universities, charities and sector bodies can bid to host the network with the winner will receiving £125,000 seed funding

Further Government Commitments

Research and Development spending

Boris Johnson pledged to double research and development funding to £18 billion in the next Parliament, promising a major injection of funds for UK universities and research organisations. This increase in domestic public Research and Development (R&D) spending will help meet the manifesto target of 2.4 percent of GDP being spent on R&D across the economy.

Funding for FE and Skills

National Skills Fund

Government committed to investing £3 billion into a new National Skills Fund over the course of Parliament to “help people learn new skills and prepare for the economy of the future.” The fund is proposing to provide match funding for individuals and SMEs for high-quality education and training.

Capital funding

Alongside the National Skills Fund and the Shared Prosperity Fund, the Conservative government have outlined a range of proposals to address the skills gap including a National Retraining Scheme, the creation of 20 Institutes of Technology, “significant investment in UK apprentices”, a capital investment of £1.8billion into the further education estate and the introduction of T Levels.

Other commitments in the Conservative manifesto

  • Review the definition of R&D to cover investment in other areas such as data gathering and processing, and cloud computing
  • Plan to increase the R&D tax credit rate from 12% to 13%
  • Work with local universities to do more for the education, health and prosperity of their local areas
  • Tackle the problem of grade inflation and low-quality courses
  • Improve the application and offer system for undergraduate students
  • Strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities
  • Improve the working of the Apprenticeship Levy

Also on the Agenda

European programmes

Horizon Europe

Horizon Europe, a proposed €94.1 billion research programme, is due to start in 2021.

The current programme, Horizon 2020, runs from 2014-20 and provides a ready-made platform for collaborating with key European partners, including six of the UK’s top 10 research partners. Participation in Horizon 2020 allows access to a multi-national pooled financial resource that supports – and incentivises – collaboration.

The exact budget and regulations for the next Horizon programme have yet to be decided at European Commission level; these are expected to be agreed by mid-way through 2020.

The Universities Minister has regularly expressed his desire to associate to the next programme, which he reiterated on 20 January during education oral questions in the House of Commons:“when it comes to Horizon Europe…I am absolutely determined that we work towards association”


The UK’s participation in the next Erasmus scheme which will run from 2021-27 has been widely discussed following the defeat of an amendment to the Withdrawal Bill that would have required the government to negotiate continuing full membership of the Erasmus+ programme.

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson MP was asked a question on the UK’s continued participation in the Erasmus+ scheme during Prime Minister’s Questions. The Prime Minister responded: “There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme, and we will continue to participate in it. UK students will continue to be able to enjoy the benefits of exchanges with our European friends and partners, just as they will be able to continue to come to this country.”

It has since been clarified that this statement relates to association to the programme until 2020. Association with future Erasmus programmes is yet to be negotiated, and its exact budget and regulations have not yet been agreed at European Commission level.

Although association has not yet been secured, the government has regularly stated its intention for academic co-operation and student exchange with European partners to continue post-Brexit. Ministers have confirmed that domestic replacement schemes are being explored.

Conclusion of the Post-18 Education and Funding Review

Chris Skidmore announced the Post-18 Education and Funding ‘Augar’ review is to be concluded by the next spending review, expected to take place in Autumn 2020. The Government are likely to outline their response to the review and any actions they propose to take forward.

The review delivers 53 recommendations for post 18 education. Key proposals within the review panel’s report for higher education include:

  • A tuition fee reduction to £7,500 per year, with lost fee income replaced by an increased teaching grant.
  • Adjusting the teaching grant to reflect more accurately the subject’s reasonable costs and its social and economic value to students and society.
  • Expectation that the sector address poor retention, poor graduate employability and poor long-term earnings benefits. If not addressed, the government should intervene in the form of a contextualised minimum entry threshold, a selective numbers cap or a combination of both.
  • Restoration of maintenance grants for disadvantaged students in line with the national minimum wage and a new post-18 maintenance support package should be provided for all students taking Level 4 to 6 qualifications. 
  • Withdraw financial support for foundation degrees.
  • Students be given access to flexible lifelong learning entitlement with the introduction of a loan allowance for tuition loans at level 4,5 and 6 for those without a publicly funded degree.
  • Replace the current system for widening participation with a Student Premium distributed to universities based on intake of socially and economically disadvantaged students.
  • Further education and apprenticeships receive a substantial increase in capital investment and the creation of an FE network focused on delivering skills for levels 3-5.

The election manifesto, states that the government will consider the recommendations of the Augar review 'carefully' on tuition fees, balance of funding between universities, further education and apprenticeships.

Response to Smith Review

The Smith review published its independent report in November, which sets out the opportunities for the UK to extend its international collaboration. The new report by Sir Adrian Smith and Professor Graeme Reid provides a range of principles and ideas, setting out potential opportunities for the UK to extend its international collaborations globally and strengthen current partnerships, including options in the event the UK does not stay fully part of European funding programmes.

This includes options for:

  • protecting and enhancing the UK’s science, research and innovation base, including through building R&D capacity across the UK
  • increasing the agility of research funding to react to new and unexpected international opportunities
  • striding towards the government’s commitment to increase research and development (R&D) investment to at least 2.4% of GDP by 2027 including attracting foreign direct investment to the UK
  • developing a Global Talent Strategy to attract and retain a wide range of scientific talent in the UK

In response the government said they will consider the review carefully. No date has been given for former response to the recommendations.

Points-based immigration system

In June 2019, the government commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to carry out an in-depth analysis of potential future salary thresholds as well as the design of a new Australia-style points-based system.

Universities UK has called for a lowering of the salary threshold to £21,000 to allow universities to recruit early-career researchers, technicians and assistants that have vital skills but lower salaries.

The government says it will introduce the new immigration system by January 2021 once the Brexit transition period has finished. It is expected that salary thresholds for the skilled visa route will be scrapped in favour of a points-based system in which applicants are assigned points in different categories including English language proficiency and educational attainment.

EU nationals will be included in the new immigration system from 1 January 2021 and therefore the specific details of the new system will be incredibly important for all industries that currently employ a substantial number of EU and non-EU citizens including universities.


Science Minister Chris Skidmore announced plans to establish a new research agency, ARPA, that would sit outside the framework of UK Research and Innovation. Modelled on the US DARPA, with a proposed investment of £800million over 5 years to support blue skies, high-reward, research and investment in UK leadership in artificial intelligence and data. Chris Skidmore said it would be a “project-led, intensive project management and [would need] to be able to distinguish itself from grant-led processes”.

The aim of the project is to channel more funding to emerging fields of research that are likely to lead to technological breakthroughs. The Minister said that he saw the planned funder as “sitting at the top of a pyramid, [with] a larger band of basic and blue skies research [funding] beneath that, of which QR [quality-related funding] is an important part”.

The government will launch a consultation before implementing a new agency.


Replacing European Structural Funds

The Government has promised to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF) with a UK Shared Prosperity Fund and to devote £500 million from this new fund to support disadvantaged people get the skills they need to succeed.

The stated objective of the UKSPF is to tackle inequalities between communities by raising productivity, especially in those parts of the country whose economies are furthest behind. The UKSPF will achieve this objective by strengthening the foundations of productivity as set out in the government’s modern Industrial Strategy to support people to benefit from economic prosperity.

A consultation from the UK government on the design of the UKSPF has yet to be released. The Scottish government launched a consultation in November 2019.

Budget 2020

The first budget of the new government will be held on 11 March 2020. Reports suggest this will be one of the highest spending budgets in years with investment in infrastructure and public services prioritised.

It is not expected that any changes to the student finance system would be announced at the Budget as the government has recently stated the Post-18 Education and Funding Review will be concluded with the Spending Review, however further details about the National Skills Fund may emerge.