The Liberal Democrats merit marks of “8 out of 10 for the policy but 2 out of 10 for the politics” on tuition fees, according to former business secretary Vince Cable.
Dr Cable spoke to Times Higher Education after taking up an honorary professorship at the University of Nottingham. He also said the UK had ended up with a damaging policy on overseas students because senior Conservatives are “frightened” of criticism on immigration from the Daily Mail and even David Cameron is unwilling to challenge the “formidable” Theresa May.
The veteran politician, who started his working life as an economics lecturer at the University of Glasgow in 1968, has a longstanding relationship with Nottingham, having previously been a special professor there.
And as business secretary, he had “done some collaborative work” with Nottingham’s vice-chancellor, Sir David Greenaway, whom he described as “a very good vice-chancellor – very active and entrepreneurial”.
As honorary professor, Dr Cable hopes to lecture occasionally as well as having involvement with students and the university’s overseas activities.
Nottingham has branch campuses in China and Malaysia and Dr Cable said the institution “seems keen to expand that range of activities – it was precisely that kind of work that I was trying to encourage when I was secretary of state”.
He added: “In order to safeguard their long-term future I think it’s very important [universities] are plugged into global networks, that they have a base in the big emerging markets – and Nottingham have actually led the way.”
Asked about the Lib Dems’ traumas on fees, Dr Cable said: “It was politically very traumatic, but it was actually good policy. One of my colleagues, I think, came up with the phrase that we got 8 out of 10 for the policy but 2 out of 10 for the politics.
“The problem was that we made this pledge about not increasing student tuition fees – it was disastrous, it was not deliverable.”
He continued: “We got hammered for it – loss of trust, all those things. But it wasn’t deliverable in the financial climate of the coalition.
“My job was to try to make the best of a bad job and produce a system which was genuinely progressive. It is. Nobody pays fees; they pay a form of graduate tax when they leave, depending on their income.
“The universities as a consequence are now quite well funded, unlike most other bits of what you could broadly call the public sector.”
From his experience in government, does he believe that some senior Tories would like to see the cap on fees raised significantly or removed?
“I think there undoubtedly are people who would like to go in that direction,” Dr Cable replied.
As business secretary, he frequently spoke in favour of a more welcoming policy on overseas students.
“We had a constant battle with the Home Office – Theresa May and her colleagues – over that,” he said.
“The excessive restrictions on overseas students, particularly on post-study work, are quite damaging to the country and unnecessary.”
Dr Cable, like many, advocates removing students from immigration statistics.
“The top of the Tory party, they are genuinely frightened about this issue,” he said. “They are frightened of being criticised by Migration Watch, criticised by the Daily Mail – anything that makes them look, quote, ‘weak’ on immigration is difficult for the Tory leadership.
“The impression I had when I was in government was that apart from the Home Office and apart from the home secretary and the Prime Minister, nobody really believed in this policy.”
On Ms May, Dr Cable added: “She’s quite formidable. My impression was…that none of the other senior Tories, including the prime minister, were ever willing to take her on.”
What would he pick out as the key successes and regrets in higher education policy from his time as business secretary?
“What I was essentially trying to do was to try to maintain a proper balance between the different elements in higher and further education that we were responsible for,” Dr Cable said.
He added that “we could probably have got away actually with a lower level than £9,000 had I been willing to take money from further education and apprenticeships and things of that kind. By going for the bigger numbers [on fees] I was able to some extent to protect those areas and do something positive there”.
Although he said that “in general we’ve got quite a lot to be proud of”, he picked out one key regret.
“The area that in retrospect has not been a success is part-time higher and further education,” Dr Cable said.
“We’ve lost a lot of people there. This idea of continuing education – which I believe in very strongly – we’ve gone backwards on that.”