Twists, turns and tributes

The fate of best-laid plans: Ivor Gaber on high fees, elite casualties and the integrity of a sorely missed journalist

October 25, 2012

It all seemed so simple at first. In 2010, when £9,000 tuition fees were first mooted, a radio programme about how the new universities might struggle to recruit students at those prices seemed like a great idea. I recruited the highly regarded former BBC education correspondent Mike Baker as presenter, and the programme was commissioned by BBC Radio 4.

We decided to select one university as a case study, reflecting the experiences of the sector as a whole. We knew we needed to have full access to an institution's recruitment and marketing procedures for a year: that meant interviews with senior members of staff whenever required, full and unfettered access to open days (including interviews with would-be students and parents) and the ability to record top-level meetings without editorial interference.

A number of universities were contacted but none was prepared to give us this level of access, so I turned to the University of Bedfordshire, where I hold a part-time post. We began recording in summer 2011 as the recruitment process for entry in autumn 2012 got under way. Then came the first twist. At the end of 2011, concerned at the high level of average fees, the government said that universities had to reduce their charges. Those failing to do so either had to take their chances competing for AAB students or face cuts in their numbers.

Bedfordshire, it was at first assumed, would reduce its fees, thus undermining the programme's raison d'être, but it didn't - we still had a programme.

Then came the very sad news that Mike had lung cancer. "I'm heartbroken," he said. "I've never let anybody down in my life" - a statement that he, of all people, didn't need to make. His commitment had been unwavering and, even after he had decided to stand down, he still produced an outstanding draft script of the story so far. I was lucky, too: he helped me recruit Sue Littlemore, one of his former BBC colleagues.

So the recordings continued. Bedfordshire's application figures, like those across the sector, were down compared with the previous year - potentially serious for the university, but good for the programme.

Our story took another turn as Bedfordshire's vice-chancellor, Les Ebdon, announced his retirement. Ebdon, who chaired the Million+ group of new institutions, had been instrumental in creating the university and his departure was seen as a blow. His rapidly appointed successor, however, was also a "big hitter" - Bill Rammell, a former Labour higher education minister.

Just as this news was being absorbed, it was announced that Ebdon was being recommended for the post of head of the Office for Fair Access. The Conservative-dominated select committee that oversees universities tried (and failed) to get the coalition to veto his appointment, supported by a ferocious campaign spearheaded by the Daily Mail.

But as clearing approached, it became clear that the story we had anticipated - that the new universities would struggle to recruit - was not turning out that way. To the surprise of many, the real story concerned the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, as some of their recruitment plans appeared to come unstuck. Many depended on recruiting AAB students to make up the shortfall imposed earlier in the year, but as a result of a "toughening up" of A-level marking, there were 11,000 fewer AAB students available.

In an interview for the programme, Vince Cable, the business secretary, described the AAB changes as "experimental". Wendy Piatt, chief executive of the Russell Group, told us that its universities would take a financial hit, perhaps as much as £80 million.

Alas, we were unable to ask Mike what he made of the twist in the tale, for a few weeks before we finished the programme, he died. His death prompted a deeply impressive range of tributes from educationalists, journalists and politicians across the political divide, all of whom praised his knowledge, integrity and decency. The programme began with his ideas, he shaped it for the first six months, the story then changed - but hopefully the finished product reflects something of Mike and his journalism.

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