I recently spent an enjoyable afternoon interviewing the head of Universities UK, Steve Smith, about the future of higher education. You can read the interview in full here but below are some of the highlights.
The immigration cap is deterring foreign students
As a result of the coalition's cap on immigration, Smith told me, other countries fear that Britain is "closed for business".
"On every single international visit I've been on this year it's been the only issue that's been discussed," he said. "I did a big conference at the British Council in Hong Kong, I was with Clegg in Brazil. In both those meetings the question was: "Is Britain closed for business?"... Although we won, the damage inflicted by what was said was significant."
George Osborne boasted in his Budget speech that Britain was now "open for business". Not all of his intended audience, it seems, agreed with him.
Cable has abandoned higher education policy to Willetts
Unusually, the government's recent white paper on higher education was presented to the House of Commons by David Willetts, the universities minister, rather than Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business and the man officially responsible for policy in this area. . Even the Speaker was caught out, mistakenly calling Cable to the dispatch box before Willetts's statement.
Has the Business Secretary subcontracted universities policy to his deputy? "Frankly, it is indeed Willetts that we do all the discussions with," Smith told me. "Our reading of it is that he [Cable], in essence, leaves Willetts to deal with the universities situation."
The government will bail out bankrupt universities
Under the Willetts model, money will follow the student, meaning that some universities dramatically expand, while others shrink. Is it conceivable, I asked Smith, that some institutions will go bankrupt? "To be candid, ministers from all parties talk about the rigours of the market, my experience is that they never live up to it in practice." In some communities, he pointed out, the university is one of the largest, if not the largest, net contributors to the economy.
"I don't think they'll let institutions go bankrupt because I think they'll work out what it would mean for the local economy." Like the banks, the universities, it appears, are too big to fail.
The Scottish problem: "an anomaly that can't stand"
Unlike their English counterparts, Scottish students continue to enjoy free higher education, courtesy of Alex Salmond's SNP administration. However, while Scottish universities are legally obliged to also offer free entrance to European Union students a loophole means that they are able to charge English students fees of up to £9,000 a year. Does Smith think the UK government should intervene?
"That announcement shocked me," he said. "They [the SNP] had made such principled statements in the past about how iniquitous fees were and then they announced that they were going to allow institutions to charge £9,000." He added: "I suspect the government will do something ... It does seem very odd to me that someone can come from France and get the same terms as someone in Scotland but if they come from England they pay £9,000. That seems to me an anomaly that can't stand in the long-run."