Power and the market

December 5, 1997

The Teaching and Higher Education Bill gives the government the power to kill universities, argues Conrad Russell.

ABOUT two years ago I was asked by a vice chancellor designate whether universities could expect better treatment under a Labour government. I replied that things would be no better and could be rather worse.

Looking at the Teaching and Higher Education Bill published last week, I realise that was optimistic. The basic objectives of university policy have been unchanged since Kenneth Baker's Lancaster speech of 1989, but they are now being pursued with a ruthlessness that makes the former Tory education secretary look liberal by comparison.

The stated objectives of university policy since 1990 have been to expand student numbers, to preserve quality and to reduce unit costs per student. The central difficulty has always been that, in the absence of a scale of provision from the taxpayer that even I am unwilling to recommend, these aims are incompatible. The Cinderella of the three has, of course, been quality, but whether this is because of a deliberate desire to reduce quality, or because the Treasury cannot understand the concept of a true cost, is very difficult to determine.

The object of this bill is simply to continue the reduction in unit costs to the Treasury. There is no attempt to choose between the objectives, and no attempt to grapple with what, from a university point of view, are the real difficulties. These are: a decline of some 40 per cent in the money per student allocated to universities, and a decline in the level of support for student maintenance to some 20 per cent below subsistence level.

The first is paid for in deferred maintenance, poorer library provision, out-of-date laboratory equipment and other such measures that cannot be continued indefinitely. The second is paid for by some 38 per cent of students (a recorded figure that is almost certainly a result of under-recording) taking paid employment in term.

The result of this is that the average amount of academic work done by students has been halved since 1984. If these problems are not addressed, the very survival of university education in this country must be in doubt, but they are not addressed here.

The introduction of tuition fees does nothing to meet this need because it is far too long before the first money comes in and because the Treasury hates hypothecation. We could only be certain money from tuition fees would go to universities if a very clear legislative provision so directed, and there is none in this bill. Instead, the introduction of tuition fees places the burden not on students' ultimate income, but on parents' immediate income. There is no provision for compulsion on parents. Without such compulsion, the chance for people to get higher education will depend on parental consent. That consent is, of course, often withheld from women.

A few days ago, I listened to a person of great eminence who started a new family late in life lamenting that if he paid his children's tuition fees, he would not be able to retire until he was 70. People's opportunities for higher education should not depend on such chances. There is no recognition whatsoever that the sums provided for student maintenance, whether by way of grant or of loan, are too low to meet the need. This is not because students working their way through college is necessarily wrong. It is because, as other nations have found, if they do, the job takes more than three years.

A three-year degree without enough maintenance to allow people to be full-time students is a degree that is not internationally competitive and may not survive.

Money to put this right must be raised one way or another. One possible avenue is by channelling further expansion into open and distance learning.

The bill also includes two unexpected and particularly worrying clauses. Clause 14 empowers Ofsted to inspect institutions, including university departments of education that provide initial training for teachers. This clause raises issues of academic freedom. There is no objection to university departments being inspected, but there is every objection to their being open to academic control by the state, and every objection to their being inspected by people who lack the academic competence to make the necessary judgements.

The challenge is to square this circle. Now that politicians are so confident that they know how to teach better than the teachers do, university education departments are entitled to anxiety about their academic freedom. They are also entitled to say that dictation of teaching methods must involve Ofsted and the government in making judgements between different schools of educational research. These are judgements they are not competent to make. No university subject to this much state control can feel it is in a free country.

The other unexpected clause is Clause 18, which gives the secretary of state power to withhold grants from universities that charge top-up fees. The objection to this is not that anyone is eager to charge top-up fees. It is that it gives the secretary of state complete control over both supply and demand.

The ability to threaten to charge top-up fees gives universities a little protection against a ruthlessly cost-cutting Treasury. This protection is to be withdrawn and we may expect that the downward pressure on unit costs will continue even faster than before.

Universities are thus to be denied any say at all in what the provision of a decent university education really costs. If this sort of centralised control were applied to private business, we would call it Stalinist. Is it any better if it is applied to something with intellectual content? The true control on universities, as with other private institutions, is competition, and our costs are in fact lower than almost any of our serious international competitors.

The secretary of state is taking power to kill universities altogether. It is to be hoped that some will call his bluff and refuse public funds altogether. That might just be enough to save the others. Otherwise, universities, like water and the London Underground, may need to be privatised because the state is unwilling to fund them at the necessary level.

Earl Russell is professor ofhistory, King's College,London and Liberal Democrat spokesman on higher education in the Lords.

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