At yesterday’s higher education fringe events at the Conservative conference in Manchester, most people wanted to talk about whether the government will “review” tuition fees and the sector’s funding. Apart from the universities minister, who seemed to begrudge each and every one of the few words he was obliged to utter on the subject.
Following the weekend’s blizzard of Sunday newspaper coverage and comments by the prime minister about the need for fee “differentiation”, a theory has emerged: perhaps Number 10 and Number 11 Downing Street are pushing for a review, but the Department for Education is resisting.
That might explain some of the mixed messages on the issue: extensive briefings to the national press from some parts of government that there will be a “review” looking at fee levels; abrupt rejections of any such prospect from other parts of government.
At a fringe event on the sector’s post-Brexit future hosted by the London School of Economics, Times Higher Education editor John Gill, chairing the session, asked Jo Johnson whether government action announced at the weekend (freezing fees, raising the loan repayment threshold) would be enough or whether there could be further changes.
“We always keep the system under review, to ensure it remains fair and effective,” replied the minister.
The chair pushed a little further: would that be a formal review, or something informal? Different question, exact same terse answer from Johnson: “We keep it under review to ensure it’s fair and effective.”
While someone in government seems intent on bouncing a review into existence with briefings, the cricket-loving universities minister certainly won’t be tempted into any hook shots.
Over at another fringe event, one of his predecessors in the post, Lord Willetts, took a dim view of one of the scenarios for radical change being pushed enthusiastically in the press by the government briefers: varying universities’ fee caps according to the earnings of their graduates.
At an event hosted by the New Statesman and HE access organisation NEON, Willetts said of the idea of introducing “price competition” via variable fee caps: “This has enormous dangers.”
Willetts argued that linking fee caps to graduate earnings would cut funding for universities with greater numbers of disadvantaged students (given the established connection between parental background, A-level grades and earnings). This would be like a “reverse pupil premium for HE”, he said, referring to the coalition scheme that allocated greater funding to schools with more disadvantaged pupils.
Willetts made the same arguments at a recent Resolution Foundation event. His public turn against “price competition” (something he hoped for, but failed to get, in creating the £9,000 fee system) comes after he was invited into the Number 10 Policy Unit early last month to discuss their ideas for changes to the fees system and attempts to appeal to younger voters. The fact that Willetts has suddenly begun to warn against varying fee caps according to graduate earnings may offer a clue on what was discussed inside Number 10.
Shakira Martin, National Union of Students president, moved things on beyond fees. “Every time I hear the government…say ‘oh yeah, the record number of disadvantaged people going into universities’ it’s almost, honestly, like a stab in my back,” she said. “Because when I go into my communities, when I speak to students…they are saying ‘it’s one thing getting in there, but once I’m in there there’s no support’.”
She added in a reference to NUS colleagues in the audience: “My people are looking at me like ‘Shakira, don’t go in too hard’.”
The NUS president went on to highlight key issues of class in access to jobs, saying that a black student might come out of a course with the highest grades “but they don’t have the social capital to do internships…There’s a certain level of social capital that comes with education that working-class students will not have once they leave education.” She joked that her children “bloody are going to have social capital, because I’ve got Jo Johnson’s number…”
On Brexit, John Gill asked Johnson at the first fringe whether there was any chance EU students could continue to have access to UK student loans post-Brexit, Johnson said that future “arrangements that will be put in place will be a function of the negotiations…in Brussels”.
LSE pro-director for research Julia Black said that her institution had carried out “sensitivity analysis” on what might happen to demand if EU students were subject to higher fees post-Brexit (and the LSE wanted to maintain the same student quality), warning that the results showed some courses potentially under threat.
Following that and a question from the floor about the importance of EU students to the Sheffield economy, Johnson warned against “doom-mongering”.
“EU students account for 5 per cent of students in our system, they account for 2 per cent of sector income,” he said, and “we shouldn’t create this impression that the world is going to end overnight if there’s any minor change in our system”.
On Brexit and research, Johnson said: “What we can’t clearly now be specific about is exactly what the relationship is that we’re going to have to [the EU’s] Framework Programme 9 or the end of Horizon 2020 after March 19 – at this point. But we’ve clearly stated that we see great value in those arrangements, principally – not because of the flows of money, because they can be replicated with UK funding… – but because they do great science and the science is more impactful.”
Whether it is domestic funding or Brexit, uncertainty is a constant.