Highlighting failures in government policy always carries the risk of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the introduction of the new higher education funding system, the National Union of Students was determined that not a single prospective applicant should fail to apply to higher education as a result of myth or misunderstanding. We therefore welcomed the figures published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service last week showing a partial recovery in application numbers following last year’s drop, particularly given our work to help communicate the facts.
You would probably find yourself better protected on taking a week’s package holiday in Magaluf than on taking out a student loan
Perhaps predictably, both the prime minister and the business secretary took the opportunity to rail against those “critics and pessimists” whom they charged with having wrongly claimed that young people would be deterred from applying. The problem with this spate of gloating, however, is that it is directed at straw people. I am not aware of any careful critic who made the assertion that initial demand for university education would fall. On the contrary, as we stare a triple-dip recession in the face, as youth unemployment remains high and as swingeing public funding cuts begin to bite, it is hardly surprising that demand appears largely strong. And these statistics fail to communicate anything about acceptances, enrolments or completion; they merely tell us about people pressing their nose against the glass of higher education institutions.
In fact, the picture is worryingly unclear. Last week Ucas quietly announced that it would not be publishing application numbers by institution, citing fear that the data would influence applicant or institutional behaviour. We therefore know even less about applicant choice than in previous years. And despite claims from some quarters that applications among those from poorer backgrounds are up, the data hardly support this beyond question: the increases refer to “disadvantaged areas”, a definition taken from Polar2 (Participation of Local Areas), which divided the UK according to the young higher education participation rate and not by socio-economic background. Excuse me for not engaging in premature backslapping.
The government trumpeted the claim that its reforms would put students at the heart of the system, but there remains a lack of evidence that the reforms have increased access, choice or quality, nor even that they stand to cut public costs. Indeed, recent reports from the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Intergenerational Foundation have made a strong case to doubt the long-term viability of the current arrangements. And our own research into student unions’ views has found an increasing focus by universities on recruitment, marketing and new buildings - rather than on teaching, academic support or student services. This further discredits the “customer is king” mantra and it is all the more worrying because ministers have failed to enshrine the current student finance terms and conditions in legislation. You would probably find yourself better protected on taking a week’s package holiday in Magaluf than on taking out a student loan. Any increase in undergraduate places would almost certainly come at the expense of worsening repayment conditions for students, pushing graduates even further towards commercial levels of debt. So we are left with an incoherent sticking plaster of a policy that will, because the sums do not add up, of necessity be revisited in the not-too-distant future.
In private, many vice-chancellors say that the government’s funding reforms are wrong in principle, disastrous in practice or both. Yet the shock and awe effects of the coalition’s reforms have left many in the sector cowering, or holding their tongues in public; and all this at just the time when vigorous contestation is required. To stand by and allow the government to claim unchallenged that it has been vindicated would amount to a dereliction of duty.
The Ucas data are welcome, but they are certainly not the only litmus test against which government reforms are to be measured. I grow increasingly frustrated as sector representatives devote ever-more resources to making the best out of what is being done to the sector, and to “marketing”, rather than working collaboratively to develop an alternative vision, exposing the existing tensions and helping to chart a different course.