Vince, you made your bed...

…and when it comes to £9,000 fees, you ought to lie in it, argues Kevin Fong

April 14, 2011

Get on Google, type in the words “Say goodbye to broken promises”, and at the top of the results page you’ll find a pre-general election campaign video, posted on 13 April 2010, from the Liberal Democrats.

Cue Nick Clegg walking along the South Bank amid a low-cost post-apocalyptic vision of the future, in which the country has been ravaged by broken promises (represented metaphorically by fluttering sheets of A4 paper). The first famous broken promise to float into view is Labour’s one about “No tuition fees”.

There’s patter from Clegg accompanying the images; a diatribe gently but firmly reassuring viewers that if they vote yellow, all of this will go away. If you had watched the video last April, it would have been easy to feel suddenly confident that the Lib Dems, champions of the fluffy and warm, knights in shining armour, would protect our good nation from this sort of duplicity.

What a difference a year makes.

Last week, more universities declared their intentions with regard to tuition-fee tariffs. Contrary to Vince Cable’s expectation that the £9,000 top rate would be charged only under “exceptional circumstances”, so far the majority of institutions in the UK have indeed chosen to levy the maximum permissible fee.

Who could have seen that coming? Certainly not Cable, who, if I understand him correctly, seems to be saying that this wasn’t what he intended at all. And to prove it, he’s threatening to take places away from those universities that gamble on charging top-whack fees if they fail to fill their places.

But frankly, having put this system in place, it is now none of Cable’s business what the vice-chancellors decide to do. The business secretary encouraged the universities to man up a bit and think a little more like big business - and that’s exactly what they’ve done.

The Russell Group of large research-intensive universities shot for the maximum fee, knowing that, for them, demand is likely to continue to outstrip supply whatever they charge. And of course, once that had happened, setting a £9,000 fee became something of a seal of quality. After all, if you’re charging less than your competitors down the road, doesn’t it kind of send the signal that you don’t have the same confidence in your product?

And then there are the cold harsh realities of university finance as they now stand. Confronted with the need to balance the books, what’s the vice-chancellor of a teaching-intensive university who’s just had their teaching budget slashed to do? Maintaining quality by keeping student numbers down while putting fees up seems like a reasonable manoeuvre.

The strategy of uncapping fees up to £9,000 has as many merits as it does demerits. It was clearly the quickest, simplest fix for university finance in the age of austerity, but it was always going to be a blunt and ugly weapon. You can’t cut university funding, hand an implement like that to the vice-chancellors and then get upset with how they choose to wield it.

Love it or hate it, the system of higher tuition fees is the hand that higher education has now been dealt: how the vice-chancellors decide to play it should surely be left up to them. Cable can’t go around arguing that the state should withdraw from higher education and then get involved in micromanaging universities’ finances.

Over the years, politicians on all sides of the House have been less than straight on the issue of tuition fees. They all dodged discussion of the harsh economic challenges facing higher education in the pre-election warm-up, overpromised on funding during the campaign and then underdelivered. None of them can claim to have come out of this smelling entirely of roses.

Fees are already to be levied at a rate higher than the business secretary intended or foresaw. What other unintended consequences lurk in the background? Precisely what this monumental change in university financing will do to our system of higher education, only time will tell. Our remaining hope is that it will have the desired effect without mortally wounding the future prospects of able but less-well-off students. Certainly organisations such as the Sutton Trust will be keeping a close eye on that.

Cable was one of the principal architects of this scheme. He has put this in motion and must now have confidence in the product that he and his government have been selling so hard. And if in the end the thing really doesn’t work as intended, if there are too many customer complaints, too many disappointed consumers, then perhaps he’ll consider recalling it and thinking again.

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