Forget that 50 per cent. Reform student support and you widen participation, says David Rendel
Addressing Universities UK's annual conference last week, Margaret Hodge advocated a greater role for the free market in higher education. "If students and research funders do not want what is on offer, why on earth should we carry on funding it?" she asked.
Choice is important. But the minister's thinking presages less choice, not more. Unpopular courses face a loss of funding, and potential closure. If private research funders opt out, so will the government - regardless of the public interest. If the market decides all, quality and diversity suffer, and the threat to academic freedom grows. Basic research disappears. The brain drain, now a trickle, becomes a flood.
Sadly, the government's view of higher education is very narrow. Employability is routinely mentioned as the principal reason why people want (or should want) to enter higher education. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is considered worthless.
Of course, higher education is economically vital. But individuals also benefit in the broader sense of intellectual and social development. Moreover, society benefits, by deepening our store of collective knowledge, not only of the vocational subjects so important for our economy and public services, but also of the more "academic" disciplines that contribute to our ethical, political and artistic development.
Even the government's 50 per cent participation target is based simply on an estimate of the skill needs of the economy. Theirs is a "production line" vision of higher education. They ask: how many young people have entered the system? We are more interested in the question: how do we make sure that everybody who can benefit from higher education has the opportunity to do so? How can we provide a diversity of educational opportunities to meet a diversity of needs? It is noteworthy that the government has set a target for the younger age group - up to the age of 30 - rather than seeking to open up opportunities for the wider community, along lines pioneered by institutions such as the Open University and Birkbeck College, London. Like most targets, this one hampers all efforts to cater for individual needs.
There are two more specific difficulties. First, the 50 per cent target has not been accompanied by the resources needed even to maintain standards. Figures from the House of Commons Library show a 7 per cent real-terms drop in funding per student by the taxpayer since Labour took office in 1997. This follows a fall of more than 40 per cent over the preceding two decades. The introduction of tuition fees, which the government claimed were justified by the need to fund universities more generously, has been used to allow an equivalent reduction in funds coming from the Treasury.
Second, as the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee points out, there is a "lack of clarity" about what the target means. Labour's manifesto promised 50 per cent of young people "going to university". But in his evidence to the PAC, the permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills talked about 50 per cent having a "higher education experience". Moreover, as his evidence confirms, the method ministers have chosen to measure participation is largely guesswork.
Observers could be forgiven for concluding that the government is trying to make it easier to hit a target that they should never have set in the first place. The target, as so often happens, has created incentives to massage reality, rather than to tackle real problems.
If the government is serious about tackling underparticipation among less well-off young people, the top priority must be to reform student support. Since tuition fees were introduced and grants abolished, student debt has doubled, and - as the National Audit Office confirms - the gap between the social classes in higher education has widened. It is difficult to think of a more damning indictment of a failed policy.
The Scottish Executive has shown that the abolition of tuition fees and the reintroduction of means-tested grants funded by a one-off graduation payment is affordable and effective. It has taken the government far too long to announce similar reforms for the rest of the UK.
David Rendel is education and skills spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, who are holding their party conference in Brighton next week.