Monday, 12 September 2011

What real Higher Education reform should sound like

One of the problems of making policy on the hoof, without long-term thought or a historical perspective, is that you mix up all sorts of objectives in a kind of unsuccessful policy blacmange. All the bits are in there somewhere, but the tastes are all over the place. And the whole is an unedifying mess.

So it is with Higher Education reform in England.

Take a desire to save a lot of money. Mix it in with Conservative laissez-faire instrincts about 'the market' (whatever that means). Add a dash of Liberal Democrat concern about high fees and access. And then stir with a great big stick of worry about middle class protets and spiralling fees. Over a very short time frame that makes the cooks run around like their lives depended on it.

What do you get? Well, a dish that makes the whole waste of effort look like a bit of an embarrassment.

If I can leave the analogy behind (something of a relief), we can see the effect of over-hasty, ill-thought-out policy making at the moment. For all the Government's efforts to salvage something from its incoherent and badly-judged policies for English HE, this week alone they've faced three further issues.

1. Cutting costs and fees. It's now clear that some universities have been trying to rejig their access agreements with the Office of Fair Access so that the average charged to all students overall dips just below the £7,500 that makes them eligible for 20,000 or so 'spoke' students that are being detached from 'core' funded students. This is one means by which Whitehall is aiming to drive down costs. But can universities actually do this, legally and practically, and can they do this without going back on advertising and implicit agreements they may be thought to have promised to those young people mulling over a 2012 entry? It seems by no means clear, and institutions will have to hurry. Otherwise they'll be scurrying to make the changes for 2013 - a humiliating climbdown for some, having lifted their fees to a once-and-for-all level for 2012/13, and less likely given how 'sticky' prices are... downwards, at least.

2. The future of STEM subjects. When the Government got rid of all direct funding for non-science subjects, they left a top-up that was supposed to make up the difference for expensive science subjects. But it turns out (unsurprisingly) that this will probably be nowhere near enough to guarantee their survival in the new and colder HE marketplace. And worse, the Government's second way of rigging the so-called 'market' they've created is to release all caps on students gaining grades of AAB or above at A-Level. The problem being, of course, is that far fewer students achieve those grades in the sciences, so that traditionally elite universities in the Russell Group have every incentive to expand in the cheaper Arts and Humanities, and none in physics, chemisty, medicine or maths.

3. Paying up front. Some Conservatives would like to allow graduates or their parents to pay back more quickly than others. Some centrist Liberal Democrats back them up, pointing out that this will make the system cheaper - just like overpaying on your mortgage. But more leftist Lib Dems fear that this will remove the elements of the system which work like a graduate tax (in which all pay back nine per cent of their income until they've finished redeeming their loans) and thus reduce the scheme's equity. A compromise will, in all likelihood, emerge in which there are fines for early repayment, but under which they're not banned altogether. It'll be yet another boon for the capital rich and yet another slap in the face for able young people from less privileged backgrounds. Added to reductions in inheritance tax, and the failure to levy capital gains on residential property, the impression grows apace that Britain is not a meritocratic, competitive society at all: it's still a stagnant society, where wealth is handed on rather than earned.

Overall, in all three areas, the impression is inescapable: as the short-term compromises and bargains involved in this process multiply, so does the system's complexity. And so does the risk of each decision setting off unintended consequences elsewhere. It's no wonder that the new head of Universities UK has asked for a pause for thought.

Contrast this with the last time we set out on reforms this far-reaching - in 1963, when the neo-liberal economist Lionel Robbins (above) issued his clarion call for the expansion of our universities and the provision of student grants. As Stefan Collini has recently reiterated, this was a multi-volume effort full of international research, real intellectual endeavour about what a university was for and might do, and which tried to imagine the system as a whole.

High-powered committees (like Robbins) or Royal Commissions aren't always the answer. Margaret Thatcher famously dispensed with that latter institution altogether, believing that they were always captured by producer interests, self-interested 'specialist experts' and pressure groups. But in a tightly-woven, complex and deeply sensitive sector such as England's Universities, that route would probably have been a much better one. What did we get instead? A not-very-impressive report from a group of (mostly) non-experts, and then one expedient after another to try and make a spatchcocked series of compromises work - each more crunchingly, eye-wateringly incoherent than the last.

Pressed on the making of public policy, Harold Macmillan once commented: 'it's like one of those children's toys. You can get one ball in, but the others then fall out'. In this case, Ministers have tried to squeeze about twelve into a holder made for two at the most.

Stern language, a sense of curiosity, a concept of history as more than the precepts of the last five minutes, an idea of national endeavour: Robbins had them all. But they have long since dissipated. More's the pity.

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