The abolition of student number controls was “all political” – an example of the Conservatives trying to outflank Labour and the Liberal Democrats ahead of the general election, according to a vice-chancellor and former senior Whitehall figure.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Reading and former permanent secretary at the Department for Education, also said the government should end protection for the schools and health budgets after 2015, a move that would ease the pressure on universities.
“The Autumn Statement was all political – it was about setting the tone for the general election,” Sir David said.
“This move is designed to outflank Labour and the Liberal Democrats, while trying to buy the Conservatives breathing space on fees this side of May 2015.”
He added that it would “have made more sense” if the Office of Fair Trading’s analysis of competition in the sector – which was announced in October – had been the trigger for further steps towards “implementing [the] Browne [Review] in full” and abolishing the number cap.
Sir David highlighted analysis of the Autumn Statement carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which said that the government’s stated plan to finance the abolition of number controls by the sale of student loans was “nonsense” in economic terms.
“Ministers need to sit up and listen when respected analysts such as the IFS say this is a leap into the dark,” he said.
On whether the current ring-fencing of the schools and health budgets will continue to apply after 2015, Sir David said: “If you’re going to undertake a first principles rational review of the totality of public expenditure, you shouldn’t constrain yourself at the outset by ring-fencing.”
He added that “from where I’m sitting now, I think there’s a good case to look at the totality of schools expenditure and the totality of health expenditure”.
Sir David continued: “We just have to think very carefully about the consequences if there were to be a substantial reduction” for university funding after 2015.
“Essentially the teaching budget will be negligible by that point, it’s whether the budget for research [will be cut].”
He described English higher education as being in the midst of “shock therapy” and a process of “rapid marketisation”.
One aspect he singled out was that universities’ ability to invest in new buildings would be increasingly determined by existing underpinning assets and wealth, given the collapse in public capital funding.
Sir David said that if gaps in wealth were “not being evened out by across-the-board capital funding for all institutions” there might be “a greater gap between the stronger and the less strong” by the end of the decade.
Although that was not necessarily an argument for government intervention, he said that policymakers should “assess those consequences and decide whether we think it’s the desired state”.
“When people talk about ‘you just let markets rip’, the danger of doing that is that you might end up in a place where you didn’t think you were going to end up,” he warned.