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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era