Prophet didn’t see it coming

Vince Cable’s uncertainties about funding reform suggest the contingent, ad hoc nature of coalition policymaking

September 19, 2013

Vince Cable invoked his reputation as the coalition’s Jeremiah this week as he urged his political partners not to hail an out-and-out economic recovery too soon.

While there are signs of improvement, the Liberal Democrat business secretary worries that these may be down to unsustainable factors rather than unseasonal green shoots.

His warning carries extra weight, of course, because it was he who warned of disaster prior to the 2008 economic crash.

Yet for all his caution on the economy, Cable was bullish about the recovery in higher education applications when he addressed the Universities UK conference last week.

Joking that he had to temper his optimism having just warned others not to get ahead of themselves, Cable went on to say that as far as universities were concerned, “we look forward much more positively than I would have thought possible three to six months ago”.

Talk was marked by anxiety about the sustainability of tuition fees and how universities at the margins will fare

His choice of words gave away just how unpredictable the situation has been, with the business secretary himself – one of the architects of the new fees and funding system – admitting that he had little confidence about what would happen as recently as June.

But having made that admission, he adopted a triumphalist tone about the success of the system, noting that “when I first came into this job, one of the things I was summoned to meetings to discuss was what happens when universities go bankrupt…We don’t hear that now.”

His speech was, on the whole, respectfully received by the vice-chancellors present, and the efforts that Cable and David Willetts, the universities and science minister, have made in specific policy areas such as immigration and in securing a better-than-expected deal in this summer’s spending review were noted.

But when Cable spoke of a sector reaping the rewards of a “stable funding regime”, not all in the room were convinced. While application figures improved this year and a number of universities significantly expanded their intake under the ABB rule, we have yet to hear which institutions have lost out in the competitive environment and to what degree. Equally, it is unclear how individual disciplines will be affected and whether some will dwindle or be restricted only to a few selective institutions and students from certain backgrounds.

Talk in the bar afterwards was marked by anxiety about the sustainability of tuition fees and how universities at the margins – particularly in the most crowded ecosystems such as London – will fare.

There’s always talk about the importance of “confidence” in economic recovery, and the same applies to universities: confidence among young people that the investment is worth it, in government that research funding is money well spent, and among business and international students that UK universities are the best places to put their money.

The effect on that confidence of regressive immigration policy, of behaviour that undermines public trust (such as that detailed in our cover feature on so-called “frackademia”) and of concerns about the viability of the funding system beyond the next general election – all live issues – should not be overlooked.

Cable’s satisfaction with this year’s applications is understandable, but the fact that he would not have predicted them three months ago – even allowing for his Jeremiah-like tendencies – hardly instils confidence that the coalition knew exactly what it was doing.

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