HE expansion critic ‘leads Treasury probe’ into university costs

Controversial Tory peer said to head Treasury committee, prompting concerns it could be eyeing funding and fee cuts

November 24, 2020
Pig with mouth open looking at persons bag.
Source: Getty

A Conservative peer who attacked the expansion of higher education and who seeks savings “like a pig hunting truffles” is said to be leading a Treasury examination of English university costs, sparking fears of moves to cut funding and fees.

Lord Agnew, who told school leaders last year that it was “lunacy” to allow students with three E grades at A level to enter university, is understood to be heading a Treasury committee looking at how universities spend their money.

The committee is driven by a perception that universities are “awash with cash” and is likely to be seeking evidence to justify funding cuts, perhaps even via cuts to tuition fees, some in the sector suggest.

Lord Agnew, a minister in the Treasury and Cabinet Office, was formerly academies minister in the Department for Education, where he led work on pressing schools to operate more efficiently.

In that role, Lord Agnew said he would bet school leaders a bottle of champagne that he could identify savings in their schools, described himself as “like a pig hunting for truffles” when it came to identifying inefficiencies, suggested that schools save money by stopping staff from making colour photocopies, and sent in consultants who urged one school to cut its lunch portion sizes for pupils.

In higher education, most in the sector believe that the government has no appetite for the Augar review’s proposal to lower tuition fees to £7,500.

But there are suggestions that elements in the Treasury still support the idea of cutting tuition fees. That would raise the question of whether Lord Agnew’s committee is an exercise to prepare the ground for such a move, possibly in the longer term rather than in the government’s forthcoming response to the Augar review.

However, Lord Agnew’s committee could be focused on other routes towards savings, perhaps for the short term of the imminent spending review.

In that case, some speculate, the Treasury committee could be seeking a rationale to justify removing the last remaining elements of teaching grant that do not support STEM subjects, such as funding for widening access and retention.

Or it could be seeking a rationale to maintain the freeze in the tuition fee cap at £9,250 in the longer term, they suggest.

In his comments on university access for students with lower grades last year, Lord Agnew said “unfortunately there’s a body of people out there, because they then never have to pick up the tab for the results of that kind of madness, that’s the problem. And so, as a government you just have to suck it up basically and just keep plodding forward.”

The impact of the pandemic on the public finances will leave the Treasury seeking major savings in public spending in future years.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said universities “should always be wary of the Treasury, and especially when it is looking for big savings”.

“The Treasury always likes to have its own sources of information rather than simply following what the outlying departments want it to think, and it is of course well within its prerogative to develop these,” Mr Hillman said.

“In general terms, it is a good thing when the Treasury seeks to understand the higher education sector better, but things can go wrong if it happens under the radar rather than in a transparent, open and consultative way or if it is devised as a route to a predetermined end like reducing fees.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

"Lord Agnew, who told school leaders last year that it was “lunacy” to allow students with three E grades at A level to enter university," I have seen students with *zero* recorded entry qualifications or students with only a single entry grade being admitted into degree programmes in the UK. So 3 E's are not the worse case yet.
An inappropriate appointment which leaves any recommendations made open to judicial review at the very least.

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