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)

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

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