Alison Wolf

February 13, 2004

The Conservative Party promises more cash for students at no extra cost to taxpayers ... Watch out! Is that a flying pig?

University admissions tests for critical thinking or aptitude are cropping up all over the place. I've devised enough tests to know how hard writing new ones can be. So here is a question that Cambridge colleges, law faculties and medical schools might all find relevant: "A political party is developing a new funding policy for universities. This will replace the proposed higher education bill (which combines institutional grants with an average payment of £3,000 per student per year, paid initially by the Treasury and repaid later as and when students earn). This party's new policy will, compared with the current proposals:

(1) Increase the amount of money universities get

(2) Make students better off

(3) Not present taxpayers with an extra bill

(4) Increase universities' freedom from government.

Presented with this argument, what do you conclude? (Tick all that apply):

(a) This is the sort of promise that gives politics a bad name

(b) They must be planning to close down half the universities

(c) Pigs have finally learnt to fly."

The answer, obviously, is all of the above. Yet, according to Tory spokesmen, those four "benchmarks" will define their new policy on higher education and combine principle with voter appeal. Under the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative policy was shamelessly opportunistic.

Labour wants to increase tuition fees? Fine, we will promise not simply to freeze fees at current levels: we will abolish them entirely. The party did some arithmetic. There would be no tax rises or mothballed hospitals to make up for the income that was promptly lost. Instead, they would reduce the number of students by deciding which courses could continue and which should be closed down.

As a piece of political dishonesty this was breathtaking. No democratic government is going to tell hundreds of thousands of young people (and their parents) that, unlike their immediate predecessors, they can't go to university. A party that promises it is one that knows it won't be elected.

It is also a party with a strong taste for central planning. Compared with being told by Whitehall exactly which courses you can run, an admissions regulator is pretty small beer. This shouldn't surprise anyone. The Conservatives, in effect, nationalised universities, with funding councils directly responsible to ministers, the apparatus of quality control and qualification targets. Even Mrs Thatcher thought they went too far (the only public admission of error I can recall her making).

So now Duncan Smith is gone - and what are his successors offering? More money for universities, more money for students, no tax rises and more university freedom. Either they really can't add up, or they, too, will have to propose fewer institutions and courses (and forget that freedom nonsense). Unless, of course, they have found some magic source of extra funding the Treasury has missed. Incredibly, this indeed seems to be what they believe. "Business", apparently, is going to be called on to help to pay for universities.

I know the government departments have no institutional memory - but shouldn't political parties? City technology colleges were a flagship of the Thatcher years, a "new choice of school" whose technical ethos would tap business sponsorship. Official policy was that private-sector "promoters will meet all or a substantial part of the capital costs" and fund an endowment (current expenditure would be from public funds). But it never happened; instead, the government incurred major unforeseen capital costs. In the few cases where active business sponsors were important, they were individual entrepreneurs with a social conscience who valued direct, personal involvement. Large corporations held back. Compared with universities, schools are cheap - and small enough to get a hold on. Why should businesses hand out large sums to vast universities, from which they may or may not recruit? They already commission research. They may well be prepared to pay off new employees' loans. In France, most of the top grandes écoles are free, but students must then work for the state.

However, they can be bought out from state service. Many private sector employers do this, but they don't also write general thank-you cheques to the state. Can you imagine shareholder and employee reaction?

The Tories' current policy is laughable. Instead of hankering after free lunches, perhaps they could invest in a pocket calculator and maybe even discover a few principles along the way.

Alison Wolf is professor of management at King's College London.

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