Lack of trust in higher education's ability to manage itself is a touchstone for discontent, says Tory spokesman Alistair Burt
It was supposed to be the winter when the National Health Service froze over, exposing the failure of the government to deal with our great public services. In the event, it is the railways that have eclipsed health as a touchstone for discontent. But if the government is not careful, neglect of the quiet desperation of those in higher education might cost it increasingly dear.
The year 2002 is crucial for the direction of higher education, and the secretary of state has too many unresolved problems in her in-tray for comfort. If past evidence is anything to go by, any possible solutions will be undermined by a fatal flaw that is emerging as the one most besetting Labour in its relationship with public services: lack of trust.
The sector works under an unprecedented level of scrutiny, and the bureaucracy associated with the interminable applications for funds takes up more time. Both are evidence of the government's obsession with control and direction. Some targeted funding to secure key objectives is always likely to be a component of government funding. But the increasing reliance of this government on this tactic at the expense of core funding is driving many in higher education to despair. That this is happening when universities have been relying less on government funding as a whole adds insult to injury. The government will need to respond to the universities' bid for more funding - Universities UK places the deficit at some £900 million a year.
But the bid may not be the secretary of state's greatest problem. A belief is growing that there is a failure to understand other issues such as recruitment and retention difficulties, when academics are being lost to different parts of the education system or to other careers. All this leads some to think that greater independence would relieve them from their burdens. This would, heaven forbid, place some out of government reach and reliant on their own sense of the way forward, conditioned not by the confines of the UK government, but by worldwide movements and markets. I think we might watch this space with interest.
Ministers seem increasingly to believe that their desire for wider participation and increased access to higher education should shield them from serious interrogation. They remind me of those who try to pick a fight in a bar by daring others to say something about their mother. They are desperate to prove their impeccable inclusive credentials.
No one will give it to them, of course, for none of us disagrees. It should be a continual aim of all concerned with the education system to want the best for our children, including the opportunity to participate in higher education if that is the best for them. But the way to achieve this is not to attempt to use a battering ram on opinion, nor to suggest that every institution should go down the same road in the same manner, nor imply that one sort of education must fit all. The target of 50 per cent is incomprehensible while the government cannot define what it is supposed to comprise. I began asking ministers in October just what was their definition of a "higher education experience". Repeated questions have produced nothing. I worry sometimes that those who set targets are doing it more for themselves than those in whose interests they are acting.
We are also no closer to knowing the outcome of the government's secret - sorry internal - review of student finance, a substantial cloud on its horizon. Baroness Blackstone, then higher education minister, denied to the select committee in February 2001 that she had seen evidence that student hardship affected access. By July, the government had learnt what any student on campus could have told it, that debt and long hours of work outside their studies were causing a real worry.
An airy promise by the prime minister, which raised expectations that there was an easy answer to this complex issue, has not been followed by a programme designed to give confidence. There is no published timetable and no consultation during the period of the review. Ministers seem to prefer to consult after they have made up their minds and published "proposals". There have been leaks, the inevitable result of secrecy, and tuition fees we thought were set to be abolished will stay, if newspaper reports last weekend are correct. All this is unsettling and poorly handled, leaving students more concerned.
As with other public services, delivery by the government is overdue. All the answers may not come in this one year, but unless more trust is shown between the most controlling government in history and those whose lives are bound up in higher education, both answers and delivery will be so much harder to come by.
Alistair Burt is Conservative frontbench spokesman on higher education.