Treacherous conditions

December 23, 2010

Betrayal has been the order of the month. The first group betrayed, the students, shouted about the Liberal Democrats' broken promise on tuition fees, but failed to observe that its own leadership had sold the pass.

In supporting a graduate tax, student leaders accepted Tony Blair's claim that those supported by the taxpayer through a university education owe a debt to the public. However, the figures show the opposite. The public purse is a huge net beneficiary of university-educated taxpayers.

The second group betrayed deserves it for its mendaciousness. The vice-chancellors have long argued for a fees rise and, lacking the guts to stand up to the government, felt it was easier to prey on the students - knowing that they would in turn blame the coalition.

The only clever trick in business secretary Vince Cable's Machiavellian meanderings has been to make the vice-chancellors pay for this by taking the upfront funding element from the teaching grant. Clever, but stupid: the vice-chancellors' costing arguments are valid on the basis that the current level of income cannot sustain quality in a much-enlarged academy.

Cable indulged in the now-standard trick of putting funding under three shells and moving it around. No one is sure where it will end up - but the impossible claim is that it will grow! This literally invented student debt will provide a 30-year repayment period for a much-reduced service.

Of course, it is the nation itself that has suffered the biggest betrayal. The Labour claim was adopted as orthodoxy by the three main political parties because it was easier than having to rethink the higher education system entirely.

True, in order for the UK to meet contemporary and future economic and social challenges, we need a higher skilled and more adaptable workforce. However, it does not follow that this need will be met by giving (I use the term deliberately) degrees to half the population. By cramming our universities, we reduce the level and quality of our degrees; by flooding the market, we reduce the earning power of degrees and give employers and students substandard products.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that a "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds". The political short-termism of our entire Parliament shows that the clearing-up done by shifting those who had their hands in the till was not nearly so important as the job left undone: getting rid of those who have their heads buried deep in the "just-let-me-keep-my-seat" sand.

Andrew Morgan, Swansea.

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