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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Trident is dangerous – and not for the reasons you think

Fixating on Trident is like replacing the guest bathroom while your own toilet flush doesn't work. 

Backing Trident is supposed to make a politician look hard, realistic and committed to Britain’s long history of military defence.That’s why the Tories delighted in holding a debate on renewing the nuclear weapons system in June 2016.

But it was the Tory Prime Minister who floundered this weekend, after it emerged that three weeks before that debate, an unarmed Trident missile misfired - and veered off towards the United States instead of Africa. Downing Street confirmed May knew about the error before the parliamentary debate. 

Trident critics have mobilised. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, called the revelation “serious”. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a longstanding opponent of nuclear weapons, said the error was “pretty catastrophic”. 

The idea of a rogue nuclear missile heading for the White House may have fuelled the disarmament movement. But even if you enjoy the game of nuclear poker, fixating on Trident is dangerous. Because while MPs rehearse the same old Cold War arguments, the rest of the world has moved on. 

Every hour debating Trident is an hour not spent debating cyber warfare. As Peter Pomerantsev prophetically wrote in April 2015, Russian military theory has in recent years assumed that it would not be possible to match the West militarily, but wars can be won in the “psychosphere”, through misinformation.

Since the Russian cyber attacks during the US election, few can doubt this strategy is paying off - and that our defence systems have a long way to catch up. As shadow Defence secretary, Emily Thornberry described this as “the crucial test” of the 21st century. The government has pledged £1.9bn in cyber security defences over the next five years, but will that be enough? Nerds in a back room are not as thrilling as nuclear submarines, but how they are deployed matters too.

Secondly, there is the cost. Even if you back the idea of a nuclear deterrent, renewing Trident is a bit like replacing the guest bathroom when the regular loo is hardly flushing. A 2015 Centreforum paper described it as “gold-plated” - if your idea of gold-plated is the ability to blow up “a minimum of eight cities”. There is a gory but necessary debate to be had about alternatives which could free up more money to be spent on conventional forces. 

Finally, a nuclear deterrent is only credible if you intend to use it. For this reason, the British government needs to focus on protecting the infrastructure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, now under threat from a US President who declared it “obsolete”. Eastern Europe has been nervous about the bear on its borders for some time - the number of Poles joining the country’s 120 paramilitary organisations has tripled in two years.  

Simply attacking Trident on safety grounds will only get you so far - after all, the argument behind renewing Trident is that the status quo will not do. Furthermore, for all the furore over a misfired Trident missile, it’s hard to imagine that should the hour come, the biggest worry for the crew of a nuclear submarine will be the small chance of a missile going in the wrong direction. That would be missing the rather higher chance of global nuclear apocalypse.

Anti-Trident MPs will make the most of May's current embarrassment. But if they can build bridges with the more hawkish members of the opposition, and criticise the government's defence policy on its own terms, they will find plenty more ammunition. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.