Slow down, you move too fast, MPs tell careering coalition

Simon Baker on an analysis that has plenty to say about the government's direction of travel

November 17, 2011

The long-awaited report on the coalition's higher education reforms published last week by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee was carefully worded.

The 41 recommendations for ministers were punctuated with comments "acknowledging" the government's difficulties and "welcoming" many aspects of policy.

However, this probably said as much about the composition of the select committee - on which Conservatives and Liberal Democrats outnumber Labour members - as it did about its actual view of the current direction of travel.

Deeper scrutiny of the report uncovers a series of points that take the government to task over its handling of the reforms so far, suggest specific remedies to certain policy problems or ask for clarity over ministers' intentions.

The report is critical of the breakneck speed with which the government has tinkered with the sector - especially the timing of policies announced since the fee cap was trebled late last year.

In particular, the MPs pour scorn on the delays to the higher education White Paper, which not only made their inquiry difficult, but also "eroded the essential preparation time" available to the sector ahead of the 2012-13 student-admissions cycle.

The report says that "inconsistencies" have emerged as a result, such as prospective students not having the data they need to make informed choices about where to study, despite this being crucial to the reform model.

The delays have been "compounded" by the string of consultations set in train by the White Paper, it adds.

Ministers' strategy for communicating the new system of fees to students and their parents also comes under fire, with the committee "surprised to learn" that the director of fair access had not been consulted about the main marketing campaign publicising the reforms.

Although the report welcomes the recent involvement of the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance Information in efforts to explain the fees system, it makes a number of recommendations to avoid students being deterred from applying.

One calls on the coalition to explain to graduates that a large number of them will not have to repay all their debt.

A table published in the report also reveals the high starting salaries graduates will have to earn to ensure that their repayments keep up with interest charges and reduce their debt in cash terms. As a result, the committee calls for annual loan statements to carry extra information to avoid causing panic among graduates who will see their debt mounting up even when they are in work.

Polarisation and atomisation

But even putting aside the potential deterrent effect of higher fees, the MPs' report concentrates much of its analysis on how other reforms will affect poorer students' access to university.

Here, it reaches many of the conclusions already put forward by vice-chancellors and analysts - that attempts to drive down fees through the AAB and core-and-margin proposals will cause "polarisation" between universities charging £9,000 and those forced to go below £7,500.

"A year-on-year increase in the number of marginal places for 'low-cost high-quality' courses seems likely, over time, to channel an increasing number of people (particularly those without A levels or those with average rather than high grades) into a low-cost model of higher education," the report states.

As a result, the committee has called for the student-number proposals to be delayed, although it is difficult to see the government acquiescing given that plans for 2012-13 are already well advanced.

In his initial response to the report, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said the government had to "get on with ending the present system of setting quotas of places at each university because it lets students down".

The AAB and core-and-margin proposals are not the only policies related to student places that have been met with scepticism by the MPs.

The report says the committee fails to see how the government will ensure that a proposal to grow "off-quota" places (where students are sponsored by charities or companies) would not lead to some people buying entry to university.

Doubt is also cast over the extent to which access agreements - in which universities must explain how they will attract, help and retain students from poorer backgrounds - will boost social mobility, since such investment will come from fees themselves.

An alternative, the report suggests, would be a policy similar to the "pupil premium" for schools to channel direct taxpayer funding to each student.

This proposal was welcomed by Les Ebdon, chair of the Million+ group of post-1992 universities, but with a core-and-margin caveat.

"The committee's suggestion...is a good one, but it has been undermined by the late imposition of price constraint via the 2012 student-number controls," he said.

"This will result in universities that teach the majority of students from more disadvantaged backgrounds receiving less taxpayer-backed funding."

The debate about fee waivers versus bursaries also receives the committee's attention.

It explicitly calls for the government's much-maligned National Scholarship Programme - which ironically was originally trumpeted as a kind of pupil premium for universities - to focus on helping students meet their living costs.

Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, who has campaigned forcefully on the issue, said he was pleased that the MPs had recognised the arguments.

"These waivers look attractive until the small print reveals that they are an elaborate con trick that would benefit only the highest-earning graduates," he said.

Another section of the report looks closely at proposals being put forward to bolster information, advice and guidance for students, given their role in influencing where funding will flow. Many of the plans are welcomed by the MPs, including the development of the Key Information Sets (KIS).

The committee also endorses efforts to involve the private sector in delivering university comparisons.

However, it highlights a "clear tension" between providing more information for students about courses - and how tuition-fee money is spent - and the need for universities to cross-subsidise disciplines.

Private challenge

Elsewhere, moves by the government to involve more private providers in its plans for higher education are closely scrutinised, with the MPs issuing a direct challenge over the future role of for-profits.

The committee says that the government's response to the report must clarify whether commercial firms will "be able to profit directly from tuition-fee income backed by public student loans".

It also says that ministers should "urgently reconsider" a loophole which means that any independent provider charging more than £6,000 next year will not have to produce access agreements.

The MPs also reiterate concerns that have already been raised over the control and ownership of degree-awarding powers and university title. They suggest that Quality Assurance Agency reviews should be triggered in the event of any takeover of institutions with such powers.

If such rules had been in place in 2009, it would have meant a review of BPP when it was bought by a subsidiary of the US' Apollo Group.

Paul Blomfield, a Labour member of the committee, said that this was a point that ministers should address in their formal response, which has to be made within two months, given their apparent desire to expand for-profit provision.

"The least they can do is to ensure robust regulation and address the serious concerns about potential takeovers that will enable companies to buy university brands," he said.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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