Having first on the floor of the House of Commons described the Higher Education Policy Institute’s analysis of the cost of the government’s policies as “eccentric”, and then conceded to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee that Hepi was right “but for the wrong reasons”, David Willetts might have been expected to steer clear of the topic of tuition fees and funding. So it is surprising that he feels in a position to give advice on higher education funding to Liam Byrne (“I’m afraid there is no money trick that makes £6K fees a good idea”, Opinion, 18 September).
While it is unsurprising that the former minister for universities seeks to underplay the cost of the present policies, he really should stop saying that the current estimates are purely hypothetical and have no basis in the real world. The reality is that his former department has been forced by the Treasury year after year to apply to the contingency reserve to make good its understatement of the cost and, therefore, the overspending. Clearly those who count think that this is real money. And yes, that money could be spent differently - instead of subsidising student loans, the government could use it to provide grants directly to universities.
Present arrangements have the effect of piling the cost of higher education on future generations (as they repay their loans through the tax system) purely to avoid the present generation of taxpayers paying more. The baby-boom generation is once again screwing its children and grandchildren – precisely the phenomenon Willetts rightly condemned in his excellent book, The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give It Back.
Higher Education Policy Institute