Students walk past the Radcliffe Camera building in Oxford. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Universities need to look beyond higher tuition fees

Vice chancellors should join the discussion about alternatives to the current model.

Ed Miliband’s promise of "radical" policies for higher education funding is welcome. It reflects the reality of an unsustainable system that will have to be changed whatever happens. As Labour develops its new approach, are England’s universities are up to the challenge they face?

Last week the rate of debt cancellation reached 45 per cent. Of every £1,000 lent to students for fees and maintenance, £450 will never be repaid. The bill for this write off falls on the taxpayer. In round terms, each year the government will borrow £14.8bn, knowing it will never see £6.6bn again.

Many in the university sector don’t seem to see a problem with this level of waste. High fees have done them well for three years, letting higher education escape the worst of the pressures felt by the NHS or local government. That boost is slowly petering out as research funding falls and the fee is eroded by inflation. But many vice chancellors seem quietly confident that, sooner or later, government will crack and let fees go up again. David Willetts has certainly not ruled it out.

As loan write-offs hit 45 per cent, that confidence is surely misplaced. Even if politicians had the stomach for higher fees in what is already the world’s most expensive public HE system, the maths is against them. If fees rise further, even fewer graduates will pay back in full and the cancellation rate will rise steadily until it is over 50 per cent. What responsible government is really going to fund universities through a route that wastes one pound in two?

More trouble is looming from George Osborne’s decision to fund further expansion from the sale of the student loan book. As the Public Accounts Committee has warned, selling the loan book may only be possible at a huge loss to the taxpayer. Selling an underperforming capital asset to pay your running costs is never a good idea, and no one knows what happens when the money runs out.

After three good years, the financial underpinning of universities is looking increasingly shaky. Vice chancellors who told themselves that high fees would bring independence are now more exposed to government decisions on public funding than for a long time. Something has got to give. Maybe, if the coalition won again, a few universities would be allowed to break ranks (giving us Ivy League fees but none of the Ivy League’s social responsibility) while the rest would have funding remorsely screwed down or undercut by private institutions.

The alternative is to recognise that higher education will always have to be a public and private partnership, and this partnership should be as clear and transparent as possible. Scrap the ideology of high fees and put every penny of public funding you can into teaching. Fees will fall, public debt will fall, the cost of debt cancellation will fall, and more graduates will actually repay what they borrow.

We could take the opportunity to bring about much-needed change, giving employers financial support to co-sponsor degrees and promoting more routes for older and part-time students. Do this and, according to Commons Library modelling, we could see fees at around £3,500 a year for a three year degree and give universities an additional £1bn of usable finance every year.

The vice chancellors’ confidence in further fee hikes looks misplaced. It will be interesting to see when they join the discussion about alternatives.

John Denham is Labour MP for Southampton Itchen and former universities secretary

John Denham is Labour MP for Southampton Itchen and former universities secretary

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Why Philip Green's fall should bring down the honours system – but won't

Sir Shifty may fall in disgrace, but our ridiculous system will endure. No matter what's happening in the rest of politics.

Sir Philip Green’s Efficiency Review (2010) is his Das Kapital and it is still, happily, online. You can, if you wish, smirk at his recommendations to the government, which were solicited by David Cameron, I imagine, because when he stood next to Green he looked not like a 17th-century woodcut but like a tall, handsome semi-aristocrat.

“There is no motivation to save money or to treat cash ‘as your own’,” Green grumbles, before complaining, “There are inconsistent commercial skills across departments.” I am weeping with laughter at the whole report. But I’m not one of those BHS employees watching their pension ­vanish as the hideous cushions, throws and bedspreads pile up on the Green family yacht Lionheart. I instantly rename the yacht 14-Day Return Policy No More.

The days when Green could write efficiency reviews for people to ignore are gone. It is said that he could lose his knighthood, because that would be exciting and pointless. If so, I hope the ceremony features the formal rending of a garment from the BHS sale bin – perhaps a torn sock will be flung at his head? The Queen will not be happy, because de-knighting makes the ancient system of patronage look as ridiculous as it really is. Do intercessors between man and God make mistakes? Would they raise a man the Daily Mail now calls “Sir Shifty”? (I checked whether there was a Sir Shifty among the knights of the Round Table who flogged the Holy Grail to a passing tinker. There was not.)

Lord Melbourne advised Queen Victoria not to attempt to make her husband, Albert, a king, for if the people knew that they could make kings, they might unmake them. Green will discover this in his tiny way. But the elites should not hide their baubles. One fallen knight will not destroy the system (and I cannot think that Green will take £571m from his Lionheart cushion budget to save his knighthood by replenishing the BHS pension fund, because a knighthood is, in essence, just a tiny Bentley Continental that you wear over your nipple). One fallen knight should destroy the system but it won’t, because human conceit and docility are without end. Green will be shunned. Nothing will change.

One might have hoped that the Brexit vote would have alerted Cameron to the abyss between the electorate and the elected. (Even Alastair Campbell, chomping against Brexit, seemed to forget that he was as complicit in the alienation of voters as anyone else: government by sofa, teeth and war.) The response was glib, even for Cameron, a man so glib that I sometimes think he is a reflection in a pond. Brexit hit him like someone caught in a mild shower without an umbrella. He hummed at the lesson that history dealt him; he hummed as he left his page. It was the hum of the alpha Etonian caught out in a mistake, yes, but it was still a bloody hum.

His next act was to increase pay-offs to favoured courtiers against civil service advice and at public expense; then, it was reported, he nominated his spin doctor Craig Oliver and his former spin doctor Gabby Bertin for peerages, because the upper house needs more PRs. He has learned nothing. I wish him a relaxed retirement in which he will, apparently, write his four-page memoir, David Cameron: My Struggle (sub-subtitle: Eton Mess?). I hope he does not attempt to deny “the prosciutto affair”, because there is no need. It was not true. It was too pure a metaphor.

So the honours system, an essential part of our alienating politics, alongside dodgy donors, duck houses and George Galloway, endures in its worst form as conventional politics fails. It is a donkey sanctuary for political friends and Bruce Forsyth. I am not suggesting that everyone who has been honoured is dreadful – some lollipop ladies deserve to be patronised with an OBE (when there is no E any more), I am sure, and the lords, some of whom are excellent, are the functional opposition now – but the system can no longer be defended by the mirth potential of watching politicians ponder what light-entertainment celebrities might swing a marginal before being posthumously accused of rape. We must find something better before the house burns down. Perhaps a robust parliamentary democracy?

The problem is best expressed by the existence of a specialist consultancy called Awards Intelligence, which engages in “VIP brand-building” by soliciting awards. It sells “awards plans” from £795, which I could well imagine Philip Green perusing as he bobs about aboard Lionheart, were it not too late. The Awards Intelligence website tells us so much, though obliviously, about the narcissism of modern politics that I am tempted to reproduce it in full. But I will merely report that it asks:

"Did you know that you can join the House of Lords on a part-time basis as an Independent Crossbench Peer or a political peer affiliated to one of the main politial parties – even if you have ongoing work, family or community commitments!"

The message from Awards Intelligence, which boasts of a 50 per cent success rate, is clear: the legislature is part-time, it exists to “instil trust, add credibility and provide a platform for you to have your say” – and it can’t always spell “political”.

Sir Shifty and Awards Intelligence do not constitute the worst crisis in the history of honours, dreadful though they are. During the First World War the royal German cousins were stripped of their garters, so that British soldiers would not have to kill men of higher rank. But it is time for the Queen to stop pinning toys on nipples. They are part of a political system sweeping us, swiftly, towards the night.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue