Alan Ryan

October 1, 2004

Universities UK should beware the Tories bearing gifts as their plans for UK institutions are duplicitous

When the wooden horse appeared below the walls of Troy, the prescient old priest said, "Whatever it is, I don't trust the Greeks, even when they come bearing gifts." If Universities UK hasn't got Timeo Tories et dona ferentes engraved on its heart, it should have. Almost everything wrong with UK higher education, from miserable salaries via crumbling facilities to hard-up and under-prepared students, is the direct result of Tory policies.

The worst one can say about the Labour Government is that it hasn't made things better; but it was the Tories who halved the money spent on each student.

The politically clever bit of the new Tory policy on funding for higher education is the elimination of tuition fees. It benefits exactly the right segment of the population, the people who do not get tuition-fee remission now or under Labour plans, but who won't willingly pay £3,000 a year from current income. They are the resentful readership of the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph , whom the Tories need to stop defecting to the UK Independence Party.

In detail, this policy is full of holes; if you move to a "mortgage" scheme, you have to decide what to do about rolling up interest into capital when borrowers can't make repayments. The Tories will find themselves neatly skewered by their own device when they encourage women to stay at home to look after their children, and then charge them £1,000 a year for doing so. Either they will offer payment holidays and put up the cost to the taxpayer, or they won't, and will discriminate against women and low-paid workers and find themselves on the wrong end of the Human Rights Act.

From the point of view of universities, the non eye-catching bits are more important. Letting funding follow the student is a good idea, and was a goal of the Dearing report. The Higher Education Funding Council for England is too monolithic to look after a diverse higher education sector with any hope of success, and anything that gets the Government off our backs is welcome. But everything depends on what the student vouchers will be worth when they are cashed. It costs Imperial College London £15,000 a year to teach science to its undergraduates, and it costs the London School of Economics Pounds 10,000 a year to teach social science to its students.

The cost per student at Greenwich University is about £4,000 a year, as it is at most post-1992 universities. It is not an accident that the expansion of student numbers in the 1990s took place in the former polytechnics, and it is not an accident that the Tory Treasury tried to run a funding system that paid everyone the price set by the cheapest provider.

So what will the voucher cover; how will its value be set; and by whom?

Tim Collins, the Conservatives' higher education spokesman, dismisses the aspirations of universities that had hoped to be able to charge substantial tuition fees as pie in the sky; but that is as light-minded as the rest of his proposals. Either universities will get the money they have been hoping for in Tory vouchers - which is implied by the open-ended commitment to fund the best and most attractive institutions - or the vouchers are going to be worth a lot less than the cost of education at serious institutions such as Imperial or the LSE and things will go on as they are, with universities chasing graduates and overseas students to pay the bills.

Handing over the loan book might, on optimistic assumptions just about cover the status quo - which is about 30 per cent too little, and where we came in.

The rest is pure duplicity. To tell universities they can't charge tuition fees (to whom - to anyone, or only to European Union citizens?) is not setting universities free from government control. The policy commits a Tory government to rationing scholarships and dictating the number of expensive places at the "top" institutions - all of which makes a mockery of the party's talk of a free market in higher education.

There is a way out: a genuine free market and unabashed elitism - not what I would advocate, but consistent with Tory ideals at least. Let every institution charge what it thinks it needs, provide differential tuition and living cost support through competitive state scholarships for as many students as the Government feels like funding, and see what happens next.

My guess is that a Tory government would get fed up with the bickering about how many state scholarships it was providing; it would be stopped by its backbenchers from allowing the more feeble universities to go bankrupt; and it would reinvent tuition fees, means-tested maintenance grants and Hefce within five years. But it would be fun to watch. Meanwhile, we should all remember to look gift horses in the mouth.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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