Leader: In a storm of its own making

The government has paused to try to calm the waters it itself has roiled, but this gives little comfort to those with that sinking feeling

March 3, 2011

Hallelujah! The government has made its first sensible decision since the Browne Review was published. It will delay the higher education White Paper, which was expected this month, "in part to test proposals more thoroughly among the sector, students and other experts; in part to learn from how price setting works this spring". And in part to work out how the hell the higher education system actually works before tearing it apart then reassembling it in ramshackle fashion to satisfy a mishmash of hastily scribbled Conservative and Liberal Democrat wish lists.

Ministers' pause for more consultation does not guarantee that they will act on what they learn, certainly not if the one piece of research done for the Browne Review is any guide. It surveyed pupils, students and parents about a £10,000 cap on tuition fees. Calling that too high, most respondents said £6,000 was the "highest reasonable amount". Thus enlightened, the government plumped for a £9,000 ceiling; now, with most institutions setting their sights on that maximum, it is desperately trying to force everyone lower.

Uncomfortably, the research showed that proposed changes would undermine widening-participation aims. Not even the possibility of higher future earnings could warm young people from poor families to the prospect of long-term debt, and some students and parents thought variable fees could reinforce the view that some universities and courses were for the rich alone.

At least one former education secretary echoes those fears. David Blunkett warns in our cover story that the shape of the system and fees has a big effect on debt-averse groups. The present direction would result in a hierarchy of universities shaped not by the quality or suitability of their offerings, but rather by the wealth of the students they attract.

As ever, it all comes down to money. And it is funding, specifically the extension of student loans to those at private providers, that has caused the most ruckus. Another former education secretary, Lord Baker of Dorking, who opened the door to tuition fees by introducing student loans, says he long ago concluded that no government "would ever give the universities the money they need or deserve", so "alternative sources of revenue had to be found". But for Charles Clarke, who helped usher in top-up fees, things have now gone too far: "The state has a direct benefit from educating people at undergraduate level, and it should be making a contribution."

Control of the purse strings gives the government power, as the sector was reminded last week. David Willetts, the universities and science minister, told vice-chancellors that if tuition fees across the sector average out above £7,500, the state could make more cuts - "So your own actions further increase your risk."

But last week also brought a caveat about the danger of short-term measures to address deficits causing long-term harm. Jamil Salmi, head of tertiary education at the World Bank, told a seminar in London: "My worry is that some fundamental decisions are being made quickly because of the crisis, but these decisions will have a long-term impact and I'm not sure that this has been thought through carefully."

All at sea, the coalition government has reached out to the private sector for salvation. "The most powerful driver of reform is to let new providers into the system...It's the rising tide that lifts all boats," Mr Willetts said.

Unfortunately, a rising tide won't help a craft that has been holed below the waterline.

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most commented

Recent controversy over the future directions of both Stanford and Melbourne university presses have raised questions about the role of in-house publishing arms in a world of commercialisation, impact agendas, alternative facts – and ever-diminishing monograph sales. Anna McKie reports

3 October


Featured jobs