The future of higher education is being put in jeopardy at a time of unprecedented change because coalition politics and "knee-jerk" reactions to policy proposals are stifling debate, vice-chancellors have warned.
Their concerns come in the wake of a furore last week over an idea floated by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who suggested removing number controls for "off-quota" home students who can fund their tuition fees up front.
Within hours, angry claims that the policy would allow the rich to buy university places forced Mr Willetts to issue a statement insisting that the proposal would apply only to students sponsored by companies or charities.
Prime Minister David Cameron also intervened in an attempt to quell the political storm whipped up by the suggestion.
Mr Willetts' torrid week continued two days later when an apparently speculative remark he made about the possibility of universities cutting tuition fees late in the application cycle sparked another media row.
Some newspaper commentators took personal aim at the minister, who in the past has been criticised for thinking in an "academic way", and more than 170 scholars at the University of Oxford signed a motion of "no confidence" in his policies.
Let's be reasonable
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that although the government's higher education plans were "in a mess" after it underestimated the cost of taxpayer-funded student loans, it was crucial that there was reasoned debate to find solutions.
On the off-quota idea, he said: "David Willetts floated a serious proposal to address the problem, which deserves serious discussion instead of the knee-jerk reactions it received.
"It is a depressing reflection of the state of politics and policymaking that a minister cannot think out loud in this way."
He added that although there were major problems with Mr Willetts' idea, it was more "palatable" than other options for saving money in light of the burgeoning loan book, such as cutting places or grant money.
Van Gore, vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University, said that although the funding environment was not easy, it was time for the sector to move on from "carping, criticism and clinging to the status quo".
He said he feared that the term "off-quota" had been "rendered toxic", a mistake when the socially progressive possibilities of finding extra places for debt-averse students from low-income backgrounds needed careful consideration.
Professor Gore added: "It is crucial that we restore a meaningful dialogue with policymakers.
"For all the Punch and Judy politics of last week, David Willetts is a thoughtful minister who is right to be trying to find a way forward that could deliver more places and greater social mobility (while remaining) within Treasury constraints."
Breakdown in communications
Others said the "realpolitik" of the coalition between the Conservatives and Lib Dems was making debate even more difficult, and fears were expressed that the higher education White Paper, due this summer, could arrive with no input from the sector.
Don Nutbeam, the University of Southampton's vice-chancellor, said there were "continuing examples of the two partners in government being unable to communicate clear and consistent messages".
Meanwhile, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, told the Higher Education Futures Forum in London last week that the off-quota episode was a "dispiriting insight" into how coalition policy was developed.
Chris Snowden, vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey, suggested that there should be more discussion with the sector to iron out potential problems before proposals were floated in public.
"The government must have had some idea of what the political reaction would be to this proposal," he said, adding that the potentially "sensible" uses of an off-quota policy may have been destroyed by the row.
However, there was still outright criticism of the government's approach from some quarters.
David Green, vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester, said attempts to "wrest back the political initiative" through "ill-informed speculation" and "hare-brained" ideas risked exacerbating the confusion and anger over higher fees.
Referring to last week's rows, he said: "Young people and their parents became bemused by the half-baked ideas that were advanced and withdrawn on a virtually daily basis." He predicted that the continued "dreadful publicity" over higher education would contribute to a significant fall in applications.
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