Why the issue of tuition fees will not go away

Average institutions charging top-rate fees will prove a continuing headache for the government.

Oxford's announcement that it will charge £9,000 for undergraduate tuition fees is no surprise. It is the fourth university to confirm that it will charge the maximum amount, after Cambridge, Exeter and Imperial College London.

These announcements will not worry the coalition. All have an excellent reputation. What will concern the government, however, is a constant trickle of lesser universities announcing that they, too, will charge the maximum amount for tuition.

The Lib Dems have already gone on the defensive. Nick Clegg said this weekend: "I cannot think of anything more absurd than a university saying, to prove that they can offer a good education, they can whack up the price to £9,000. They are not Harrods." He is right – it is absurd. But what did he expect?

There is a market in higher education – one heavily weighted in favour of universities. Every single university in the UK has more applicants than places. Vince Cable's threat that "at some point, a university committee will destroy their own student base unless they are very, very careful" is as empty as they come. Universities call the shots when it comes to admitting students. They will not charge £9,000 to show off – they will do it because they can.

Even average universities are vastly oversubscribed. According to Ucas, the University of Chester had almost ten applicants per place in 2010. Kingston University had 44,083 applicants, of whom only 7,524 were accepted. Even the University of Lincoln has nearly five applicants for every place. Unless there is an improbably large drop in demand for higher education, practically any university in the UK could charge the full £9,000 and still fill every single place.

This leaves the coalition in a pickle, with little recourse other than to appeal to a university's sense of what's right and fair, as the government's universities minister, David Willetts, did last month. "Unless universities can prove that there will be a commensurate and very significant improvement in the education on offer, it is difficult to see how such an increase could ever be justified," Willetts claimed. It could, however, be justified by pointing to the 80 per cent cut in the teaching grant that the coalition introduced.

Justified or not, raising the cap and then castigating universities that decide to raise their fees accordingly is policy at its most incoherent. The government failed to make a convincing case for higher fees and is now attempting to compensate for its failure by intimidating universities. The coalition's policy is a mess. Its problems with higher education are not over yet.

DebateTech
Show Hide image

Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.