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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)