Leader: Battle won, but maybe not the war

With the government poised to shelve its HE bill, opponents of pro-market plans have scored a victory, however partial or fleeting

January 26, 2012

Suggestions this week that the fat lady had sung a funeral dirge for the higher education reforms were doubtless premature. But David Cameron does appear to have done a bit of warbling for her, and David Willetts may not have liked the tune. The government is believed to be on the verge of shelving a major plank of the proposed reforms, delaying indefinitely the bill that was due to go before Parliament this spring.

It was expected to include major regulatory reforms, introducing legislation to make it easier for private companies to get involved in higher education. However, in a tale that is already operatic in its twists and turns, Mr Cameron is said to have intervened.

Bruised by the battle to reform the NHS and mindful of fierce Liberal Democrat opposition, he has apparently indicated that "the whole thing is off the table".

None of this has been officially confirmed - Mr Willetts said only that there would be "further discussion in Cabinet in the next couple of weeks". And it must be remembered that many of the changes - the £9,000 fee cap, the AAB plans and "core and margin" - are already in place.

Nevertheless, the brakes appear to have been applied on a key plank of the proposals, and most will see it as a victory (albeit a partial and perhaps temporary one) for those who are opposed to the reforms.

As has been pointed out, the lack of a coherent and committed response from vice-chancellors to the shake-up has been striking, but the higher education unions have been trenchant, if predictable, in their opposition, and Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, has also maintained the pressure on government.

In an interview last week, he touched the nerve that appears to have made Mr Cameron flinch, warning that the coalition faced "an NHS moment" when the public realised that the bill would mean public money going to private providers.

But the academic and student unions have not been alone in their fight. In the 15 months since the Browne Review, a steady head of steam has been building. As Sir Peter Scott recently put it, "the anger is not abating...large sections of the academic community are finally waking up to the challenge posed".

If Mr Cameron has indeed intervened, then he is right to be worried: the plans have gone too far, too fast, in too much of a muddle. But the shelving of the bill would not be a cure-all - indeed, some suggest that it could make a bad situation worse.

Mr Burns warns that it may allow the government to avoid much-needed parliamentary scrutiny, and private providers may actually welcome the halt, which would enable them to continue to expand and draw on student loans without a cap on numbers. Asked for his thoughts on the mooted delay, Carl Lygo, head of the private BPP University College, said: "It really doesn't make much difference to us."

But despite such caveats, those who have fought the plans will surely feel some satisfaction. By refusing to dance to the government's tune, they may have won a victory worth singing about.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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