Downing Street is said to fear that when the public hears the words “Conservative reform” it understands “mass privatisation” but that’s not a charge David Willetts is afraid of. His vision of a market-driven higher education system remains in tact and is at the heart of the government’s much-delayed white paper on the subject. Universities, he declared on the Today programme, should “not be in the mindset that they are part of the public sector.”
Under the new tuition fees system, he emphasised, money will follow the student, allowing the best universities to expand and putting others (he failed to say) at risk of bankruptcy. In an attempt to persuade students (consumers?) that fees of up to £9,000 a year – the highest public university fees in the world – represent value for money, he promised better information on issues such as contact hours and job prospects (there are now 83 applicants for each graduate vacancy), as well as a charter setting out students’ rights. With around two-thirds of institutions planning to charge full whack, the idea, presumably, is that this will allow students to distinguish excellence from mediocrity.
But listening to Willetts it’s hard to avoid the sense that he has assumed what he needs to prove, namely that competition will drive up quality. He also had alarmingly little to say about access. With evidence that some pupils are already being deterred from applying by higher fees, the question Labour will ask is whether the coalition is offering quality for the few or for the many.
P.S. As an aside, it’s worth noting that Willetts, the universities minister, will present the white paper in the Commons at 3:30pm today, not Vince Cable, the man who, as Secretary of State for Business, is ultimately responsible for the reforms. Indeed, it’s hard to remember the last time that Cable defended the measures in public. Is Vince running scared?