The government’s university policy doesn’t add up

The coalition’s higher education reforms are unnecessary, unfair and incompetent.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg's plan to treble tuition fees was never fair or necessary, but it's increasingly clear that it isn't sustainable either. It looks more and more like they rushed through legislation too quickly so that now the sums just don't add up.

A further round of damaging cuts to universities could be on the way.

It has been clear for some time that this government's attack on the life chances of the next generation is unnecessary. Fees are set to treble because of the huge and disproportionate 80 per cent cut in university teaching grants. This squeeze is already being felt, with universities making cuts that will harm students just when we most need them focused on supporting economic growth and the creation of new jobs.

The UK is the only country in the OECD, apart from Romania, cutting investment in higher education and science. In the United States, President Obama has pledged the largest commitment to research and innovation in American history. In Germany, Chancellor Merkel has announced a €12bn increase in the budget for education and teaching by 2013.

As well as being unnecessary, the reforms are unfair. They risk setting back what Ed Miliband has called the "British Promise" – the promise that the next generation will always do better and benefit from more opportunity than their parents or grandparents. The head of the social mobility watchdog the Sutton Trust, Sir Peter Lampl, was clear when he said:

Fees on this scale will deter many students from lower- and middle-income homes from higher education in general, and from the prestigious universities charging the highest fees in particular.

As well as being unfair, the government's attempts to implement its new approach are looking increasingly incompetent. Cameron and Clegg both asserted that universities charging the maximum fee for tuition would be the "exception". Yet it is clear that won't be the case.

Already, 18 universities have announced that they will set their fees at £9,000. The upshot is that it looks like Nick Clegg, not content with breaking his promise on tuition fees in the first place, will be breaking it again. The widely respected Higher Education Policy Institute's view that fees of £9,000 will be the going rate looks ever more prescient.

But further problems could be on their way. The government only budgeted for universities to charge £7,500 on average in tuition fees. If the institutions go higher than this, students are likely to struggle even more to pay back their loans, and in turn more of these loans will have to be written off.

This write-off counts as a subsidy in the government's public spending figures. Higher tuition fees as a result means more government subsidy as more student debt has to be cancelled.

The cost of that subsidy will have to be found from somewhere, and it is this financial ticking time bomb that is now exercising minds in Whitehall and vice-chancellors' offices. With George Osborne's Treasury door likely to stay firmly shut, Vince Cable and David Willetts face increasing scepticism about whether the current funding settlement for universities and for student support will stay in place.

Making demands

The government has already begun threatening further cuts to teaching or research funding. One other possible way it could choose to plug the funding gap is to cut student numbers further.

Higher education think tanks have warned that in the longer term the government might have to increase the rate of interest on loans, or increase the number of years over which students have to make repayments.

Cutting student support – reducing grants or cutting the National Scholarship Fund – are other possible ways the government might make its sums add up, albeit with just as damaging consequences for would-be students.

The scale of the further cuts in the higher education budget, according to House of Commons Library figures, range from £80m to £1.3bn, depending on how high average fees rise.

As more universities have threatened the maximum £9,000 fee level, so the government, and in particular Nick Clegg, has increased the demands on universities, particularly Oxbridge, to take more students from state schools. But a few more students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to Oxford and Cambridge, whilst good news for the individuals concerned, will not amount to a successful policy to keep widening participation in Britain's universities, if large numbers of would-be students are deterred from going to the one most suited to them to take the course most appropriate to their hopes, ambitions and talents.

Because the government has got its sums wrong, we are in the extraordinary position that students and their families will have to pay more than they expected, while the government saves less than it thought it would and universities face the prospect of even bigger cuts than they'd been led to believe. It could all have been so different. More thought, consultation, a white paper properly completed, and maybe, just maybe, the current flawed, incoherent and uncertain approach to some of Britain's finest crown jewels, our universities, could have been avoided.

Gareth Thomas is the shadow higher education minister and MP for Harrow West (Labour)

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.