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 was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.