Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Simon Hughes: mission impossible

Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader who memorably abstained in the Parliamentary vote on higher university tuition fees, has begun to flex his muscles as the government's 'access advocate' for Higher Education.

He has started calling for:

(a) Cuts in the numbers of private school pupils among university students, so that they reflect more adequately their seven per cent share of the school population (rather than the 40 to 50 per cent at Russell Group Universities);

(b) Limits to the number of universities 'allowed' to charge more than the soft cap of GBP6,000 per year - so that only a few charge up to the GBP9,000 'hard cap';

(c) Much more outreach work among young people to 'explain' that the new system is actually more progressive than the old.

But he's not going to get far. His role is consultative: he reports to Ministers. He doesn't actually have any power over any of these issues. More importantly, his entire case is far removed from reality:

(a) It's very unlikely that any government would ever adopt hard-and-fast numerical targets for state and private school pupils going to university, let alone discriminate by different type or status of every institution. They have no powers to do so; and the 'top' universities just won't let them. And as Jackie Ashley of The Guardian has pointed out, neither will the Lib Dems' Conservative allies.

(b) As for the 'soft' and 'hard' caps, Ministers have just removed nearly all teaching funding that goes direct to universities. If universities limit themselves to charging GBP6,000, their new income stream won't even nearly make up their losses. Many colleges and departments will close. Will Lib Dems want that in their constituencies? No? Thought not.

(c) You can explain all you want: and yes, most graduates will actually pay less per month under the new system, and the bottom quarter or so of the income distribution will probably be better off in terms of what they actually pay before their debt is written off. But the debt stock will remain, weighing down what graduates can (for instance) borrow to buy a house or invest in further training or their own business. Young people know this. They're not stupid.

In fact, as the Government rows back from its commitment to open up free tuition to young people who received free school meals at school, and prospective undergraduates begin to eye up cheaper foreign universities, the new system's cardinal features are already in place.

Simon Hughes' ideas will make him feel better about Coalition policy - and do something to change the intellectual debate. They won't affect policy.