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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At Labour conference, activists and politicians can't avoid each other – but try their best to "unsee"

My week, from havoc in the Labour family to a sublime act of real-life trolling – via a shopping centre.

I like to take a favourite novel with me to party conference for when it all gets too much, and this year I took China Miéville’s The City & the City. It takes place in the fictional cities of Besžel and Ul Qoma, two metropolises that exist in the same geographic space but must dutifully “unsee” one another or risk the sanction of Breach, the secret police force. It turned out to be a better allegory for what was going on outside my hotel than I had expected.

Labour, as I don’t need to tell you, is badly split on almost everything. Now that the acrid leadership race has reached its inevitable conclusion, activists and politicians on both sides are operating as if they had a standing duty to “unsee” each other. The atmosphere feels a bit like a family dinner after a blazing row: everyone is aware that things have been said that will take years to be forgiven, if they ever will be, so the conversation is largely banal and superficial.

The exception is the conference floor, the only place where Corbynites and Corbynsceptics cannot unsee each other, which was therefore the scene of several acrimonious confrontations after tricky votes. It’s difficult to predict where Labour goes from here. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is largely against a split, but its members surely can’t spend the next four years dutifully pretending not to see one another,or their activists?

 

Chaos and confusion

Would it have been better for Jeremy Corbyn if his defeated challenger, Owen Smith, had done a little bit better against him – not just in the final vote but throughout the contest? All summer, Smith distinguished himself only through his frequent gaffes, to the point where it felt more appropriate to describe him as a participant in the leadership race rather than a combatant.

The difficulty for both Corbyn and his critics is that his opponents in the PLP have no clear leader. As a result, their dissatisfaction is amorphous, rather than being productively channelled into a set of specific demands or criticisms, which Corbyn could then reject or accept. The overwhelming feeling about his leadership among the PLP is that “something must be done”. So whenever an MP embarks on a freelance assault – Margaret Hodge’s no-confidence motion, say, or Clive Betts’s attempt to bring back elections to the shadow cabinet – the majority leaps on the scheme. Corbyn’s critics reason that at least it’s something.

Although fractious Labour MPs might not see it that way, the decision not to restore shadow cabinet elections helps their cause. Taking away the leader’s ability to choose his ministerial team was a recipe for chaos – chaos that would, rightly, have been blamed on them.

 

Custody rights

If the Labour family would be, as I suspect, better off seeking a divorce, there is an irony that one of the things that they all agree on is the fate of the kids. The party is entirely united behind its leader in his opposition to grammar schools – as is almost every serious thinker on education policy, from Policy Exchange on the right through to Melissa Benn on the left.

Still, Labour will encounter a visceral type of resistance to its stance from the alumni of grammars, who, regardless of what the studies show, attribute their success to their attendance at selective schools. I can understand that. Although I went to a comprehensive, the emotional pull of one’s upbringing is hard to escape. I can, for example, read all the studies that show that children in single-parent families do worse – but I find it hard to experience it as anything other than an awful attack on my mother, to whom I owe everything.

Winning the argument over schooling will require a sensitive ear to those for whom the argument against the schools seems like an attack on their parents.

 

Pudding and pie

One of the nice things about being from a single-parent family is that I don’t have to admit to flaws – merely to unresolved kinks that would have been ironed out had my absent father stuck around. One such kink is my capacity for procrastination, which
results in my making decisions too often at the last minute.

This always comes back to bite me at party conference. At dinner events, I frequently put off picking my meal options to the point that I have to eat whatever the kitchen has left. At one meal this year, I was lucky enough to have three courses of pudding, but at another, my hastily cobbled-together starter seemed to consist entirely of pesto, taramasalata and rocket.

 

Too late

The best thing about party conference is sharing a panel with a politician you don’t know very much about who turns out to be highly impressive. It’s particularly cheering now, when my optimism about politics is at a low ebb. I try to meet them properly for coffee afterwards, although because of my capacity for putting things off, that doesn’t always happen.

Last year, I was chairing a particularly testy fringe on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The then shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, was running late and an MP from the 2015 intake had to field all the questions on her own. She did this with immense poise and knowledge, while clearly having a sense of how unhelpful some of the louder, angrier voices were – during one lengthy monologue from the floor, she turned and rolled her eyes at me. Her name was Jo Cox.

I kept meaning to get to know her, but I never got around to ringing her office, and now I never will.

 

Banter and bargains

A colleague alerts me to a sublime act of real-life trolling. When Everton opened a second branch of its team store in Liverpool’s shopping centre, it picked an innocuous name: Everton Two. Innocuous, that is, until you realise that the shopping centre is called Liverpool One. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories