Vince Cable and David Willetts have vandalised our universities

Glen OHara

107452962 176x300 Vince Cable and David Willetts have vandalised our universitiesBritain’s universities are one of the country’s most remarkable success stories. They have been beset by creeping centralised control since the 1980s, as well as funding cuts per student in the 1980s and 1990s that would have crippled most industries and almost any part of the welfare state. They have been assailed by populist critiques about their ‘privilege’, ‘exclusivity’ and ease, as well as their unfair subsidies to the middle and upper income cohorts – as if most campuses lived in a long Brideshead summer.

Yet still they have come out on top as some of the best in the world. Two or three of them make it into the top ten in international league tables. British academics come second only to their US counterparts in world citation rankings and the esteem granted to their academic publications. Scientific breakthroughs, from aeronautics through to stem cell research and nanotechnology, flood from their laboratories. They are a triumph even in the stark business terms the present government would like us to adopt. One of Britain’s most successful export industries, their patents and spin-offs flood out into the world, even as foreign students – both undergraduate and postgraduate – flood in. Universities are huge employers, and act as a kind of proxy regional policy in areas of Britain that would otherwise find it hard to attract skilled jobs, clusters of innovation or investment. It should all be a cause of just celebration.

The reasons why it is not, at least not right now, will be familiar to most readers. The government announced last year that English universities are to be allowed to charge up to £9,000. English students in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are to be charged similar amounts, though separate and more generous arrangements will pertain to students domiciled in those countries. At the same time, most of the public subsidy to teaching was removed, and almost all university income was to come direct from fees. This meant that most universities felt forced to charge at about or near the maximum – more than an ill-informed government thought would be able to. Stumped by the hole in their sums, Ministers announced a ‘margin’ of places that would be available to universities charging an average of less than £7,500. In response some institutions hurriedly lowered their fees, or pushed up their fee waivers for students from low-income backgrounds.

So we are in a mess. The government is providing the cash for all these loans up front, so Whitehall might spend ten per cent more on Higher Education at the end of the Parliament than at the start. So the new system will increase rather than reduce the deficit – while tripling charges. Universities have been asked to take a huge leap in the dark without knowing anything about how the increased fees will affect demand. Some students have begun to choose courses only to be told that they have a different price-tag than the quoted fee. Given that they are now unsupported by the taxpayer, vulnerable but strategic points of strength in the British economy will be subject to very rapid and steep funding changes because of a one- or two-year lag in student numbers. This may wipe out departments doing important economic, social or cultural work, and is hardly consistent with the longer-term decision making agenda being pushed by the Treasury. What is so eye-wateringly painful – especially for those of us who actually research and teach the history, practice and art of public choice – is that the responsible Ministerial team of Vince Cable and David Willetts have made UK policymaking into a laughing stock.

The removal of most public subsidy is an act of sheer vandalism that will take years to repair. The implied argument – that the entire benefit of Higher Education is secured by the individual – is simply wrong. Almost every piece of statistical or econometric research ever conducted reveals that even the crude cash benefit to the economy as a whole, and each particular student, is split more generously in the favour of the former than the latter. Even leaving aside such mechanical arguments, are we really to raise our young people with the view that what they will get out of education is narrow and functional ‘training’ for a better-paid job? The crude philistinism of it rankles less than the punchbag that rhetoric might make of our most successful creative industries, all of which depend on a truly free thinking and liberal sense of what is both possible and novel. Animation; computer game design; film and television; music: they will all suffer.

It is nearly impossible to find a single person in Higher Education who thinks that these ‘reforms’ will work. The initial signs are that the sector will shrink, radically in some areas, and that student numbers might sink by just over ten per cent. But Ministers still talk about ‘increasing access’, ‘widening participation’, and ‘putting students at the heart of the system’. It is almost as if they live on a different planet. If some universities do fail, if numbers do stagnate, and if access does narrow, they will be forced to eat each and every word.

In the meantime, a long and bleak educational midwinter confronts us. Students are going to be loaded up with massive long-term loans. Personal debt is going to rise. The taxpayer is going to be stung. And all for an ‘increase’ in resources that will feel very much like a chaotic fall. The painfully constructed and long-established set of compromises and relationships that have made Britain’s universities some of the best in the world is being thrown to the winds in an unnecessary and ideologically-inspired gamble. Like a campus novel, you honestly just could not make it up.

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  • leconfidant

    I don’t have much to say about it, I’m really not an expert. But just a layman’s take if you will allow….

    Our economy is increasingly based on international and inter-cultural communication, because we’re in global markets and between that and the finance markets, and technology increase, our planning has to be more faster, more flexible and imaginative than ever. So we need smarter workers.

    In the 90s, Blair figured it was great if everybody went to uni whatever. But funding didn’t increase, so standards went proportionately lower. So if someone did phyics or english lit in the 70s, I figure they’ve got the beginnings of a scholar. If a young person says they did that in the 2000s, I figure they’re literate and numerate. I’ll chat to them to guess if they can really think. I mean they might be smarter than me or they might be pretty thick. So uni doesn’t mean that much to me already.

    And now we’re making students pay through the nose to be competent in the international market. It doesn’t feel like we’re making sure that as many people as possible are capable of analysis and imagination. More like we’re making sure that the rich kids are OK.

    Ultimately, I think the government don’t really want people to be too educated, because if they understood what’s going on around them, they’d start doing something about it.

  • Laurence

    My mother left school at 14 in 1915 but with such an inferiority complex about not being “educated” that at 25 she squandered her meagre savings to buy a year studying English Literature, French and modern History at a Working Women’s College: liberal studies that had nothing to do with her economic destiny as a small shopkeeper’s wife. The only beneficiary (beyond her own self-esteem) was myself–if indeed a liberal education can in these Gradgrind times be deemed desirable or useful in real world terms! Why do we need any state support for universities? If they become efficient and market orientated enough, they will attract sufficent foreign students and private equity capital for independence. If not, the economy needs them as little as it does a socialist NHS.

  • RBains

    Hello Brian,

    I’m sorry I only saw this reply in my inbox.

    My comment about the standards was due to what happened when university were increased from the initial £1000 to £3000+ a few years ago. What happened was that universities began selecting students, all of whom got the grades (I don’t mean this comment to take away from students who worked hard to get into university) but all began coming from higher income backgrounds: the difference between £3000 for an entire 3 year degree and £9000 for a whole degree meant that a lot of capable people from low income families couldn’t go – despite provisions in place such as access grants or loans. There is still the issue of external costs such as living costs for example.

    Why this is relevant is that this will only get worse with the fee increase which means that we are not taking the best from everywhere, but the richest/those who are able to afford university. This flies in the face of statistics from universities which found that students from lower income and comprehensive school backgrounds are overrepresented in the higher degree class categories. Therefore the idea that the richest are somehow better at higher education (which I feel Cable and Willett’s policy implies) is a myth – the data are out there.

    I actually am a PhD student/teacher in a Russell Group university at the moment and in my time here have seen standards slip as the fees increased. With regard to your comment about polytechnics versus established universities, there is still an old fashioned snoberry that exists and many people target old universities (formerly red brick, Oxbridge, Russell Group etc) when choosing their course. The problem is that with high fees for all universities, those that can afford to go to the “top” universities will and those from less well off backgrounds won’t be as willing to apply. One of the greatest tragedies of this is that it has already happened. I think that the Guardian recently published a list of universities which were failing to meet their requirements for access to university and they were all established universities/world renowned. Perhaps there are more elements to the data than I have described here but they still illustrate the point that high fees means that you aren’t taking the best.

    Also regarding the standards slipping, this is also in relevance to the easing of marking, plus the expectations of students coming to university has grown in terms of the degree class that they obtain – an example is the two graduates suing their universities for not getting a higher grade. This has had a knock on effect at university level. Standards are high still, of course, but there is a gradual culture of easing the standards of marking – which occurred when the fees were first increased. Additionally in America, where fees are astronomical, it is possible to negotiate a grade with the marker – which thankfully hasn’t happened here in full scale but there are students who come to the offices of markers to do this. Contrast with Scandinavia, where the education is free, and what you have is a lot of students who are not able to meet the strict criteria to get into university having to go elesewhere in Europe to obtain a degree. Only the very best are taken in Scandinavian countries – from all income backgrounds.

    I do appreciate your point about people not being at university who are not capable, but this scheme of introducing higher fees will disproportionately affect low income individuals. If we take the best then they should come from everywhere.

    As a scientist it is upsetting because some of the most groundbreaking discoveries of our time have been made by people who come from low income backgrounds. Alot of whom, when surveyed internally in my institution, said that they would not have gone to university had the fees been what they are/about to be. A crop of the most talented individuals who have led the way in medical and scientific research would not be here had education not been accessible back when they were studying and prior to Thatcher’s remodelling of the university system to become more businesslike.

    I hope that this all makes sense, thanks for your reply.


  • RBains


    I’m sorry it has taken me so long to reply, I only just saw this.

    I agree that the emphasis in higher education has been on income generation. It is sad that Thatcher’s policy of making higher education more businesslike means that money is the driving force behind so many decisions that universities make – such as who comes in etc. My institution is having a massive recruitment drive overseas because foreign students pay higher fees. The universities need to make up the shortfall/pay their bills/wages etc and this has also biased against capable students from low income backgrounds.

    I know the feeling that academic achievement is often overlooked.

    Thank you for your comment.


  • Ipsmick

    Actually, no other country.

  • SilentHunter

    My pleasure; thank you for your reply.

    Happy Christmas. :o )

  • stonedwolf

    ?? eh

  • cyclopx

    Brian, your point is well made and I couldn’t agree with you more. The future generations will be hamstrung by by this huge financial burden that will serve to deter them from pursuing a university education. It will reduce social mobility and accentuate the class divide for, although the government maintains that repayment will only be required after a threshold in earnings is reached, it is only those with means that will not feel the financial pressure brought on by the tripling of fees.

    Able and talented young people from whatever background deserve the same chance in life to get ahead – not only the well connected and well heeled.

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