In her 2017 Conservative conference speech, prime minister Theresa May said that “today, young people take on a huge amount of debt” to study after leaving school. She added: “We have listened and we have learned. So we will undertake a major review of university funding and student financing.”
Could it be that May was rather misleading about what was uppermost in her mind with the post-18 education review?
The BBC has today published an interview with former education secretary Justine Greening, who was removed by May after opposing the review. The interview suggests that the prime minister terminated the Department for Education’s plan for fundamental university funding reform – to abolish tuition fees and introduce a graduate tax – with her announcement of the review and instead enforced No 10’s own higher education agenda.
Greening says the review’s “private purpose was to buy time and only ‘tweak’ a few of the most politically toxic aspects of the current system”, writes the BBC’s Sean Coughlan in his interview with her.
Greening’s intervention is significant for two reasons – one offers a positive sign for those in higher education concerned about the review; the other, however, confirms suspicions of internal hostilities towards universities in No. 10.
First, it shows Greening stepping up efforts to ensure that the plans emerging from May’s review – said to include a cut in fees to perhaps £6,500 and potentially a severe reduction in university funding – do not have any route to a majority in Parliament. This means ensuring that a clutch of Tory backbenchers would oppose such plans.
Former universities ministers Jo Johnson and Sam Gyimah have previously joined Greening in objecting to the ideas emerging from the review – they argue that a fee cut would reduce the amount of income that universities have to spend on access plans for poorer students.
But undermining May’s justification for the review as Greening does – and suggesting that it skewered a reform that arguably would have delivered more for students and graduates than an Ed Miliband-esque fee cut – could help to delegitimise the entire exercise in the eyes of centre-right Tory backbenchers.
Coming on to the second point of significance, Greening’s interview brings to the surface what has been latent all along about the review: No 10 is driving it and has brutally overridden the DfE. This is crucial, given the hostile agenda towards universities demonstrated by key figures associated with May and No 10.
Some ministers are said to think that May’s former adviser Nick Timothy remains in contact with his former boss.
His attack on higher education expansion in a Daily Telegraph column – written in August 2017 after his enforced post-election exit from government – certainly seems to have set much of the agenda for the review. As well as laying bare Timothy’s anxieties about having his hair cut by a Solent University football studies graduate, this column said that some students choose “the wrong institutions” and criticised the higher education status quo as “an ultimately pointless Ponzi scheme”.
He approvingly cited Alison Wolf’s arguments for rebalancing towards “sub-degree technical qualifications” (he meant such courses when they are provided outside universities, which do plenty of this provision). Wolf was subsequently chosen by the government as a member of the post-18 review’s independent panel.
Interestingly, Timothy also said in that column (published about the same time as Greening and the DfE would have been working on the graduate tax plan): “Many favour a graduate tax, but that would still encourage people to take unproductive degrees and expect others to pay.”
One vice-chancellor describes being “shocked” by the present level of hostility towards universities in government – with a widespread perception that too many students are going to university and that graduate earnings data show too many studying the “wrong” courses at the “wrong” institutions (all very much in the style of Timothy’s haircut column).
Another uses the same word – “shocked” – reporting that they have only just begun to appreciate the extent to which politicians and senior policymakers “have fallen out of love with universities”. There is a perception that universities are “fat”, “making too much money” and “not delivering on national priorities”, they warn.
Sector leaders will hope that Greening et al. are successful in heading off any attempt to pass a fee cut through Parliament and that the only destination for such plans is some very long grass. But the hostile Timothy agenda will remain a key force in government. After all, tigers hunt in long grass.
John Morgan is deputy news editor at Times HigherEducation.
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