Vince Cable and David Willetts have vandalised our universities
Britain’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.Tagged in: David Willetts, degree, education, Higher Education, university, Vince Cable
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