Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Heath Robinson fixes in English Higher Education

So numbers of university applications are down following the near-tripling of English fees. What a surprise. It's early days, of course, and there was a bounce-back after a slump in 2006 when 'top-up' fees were introduced. But in general it does seem rather likely that the massive expansion of Higher Education which began in the 1960s has come to a halt - at least for now.

The Government's response to this troubling consequence of their own policy has been threefold. Take the cap off any courses that offer an AAB bid or above, Ministers say, and you'll allow 'opportunity for all' and universal access to the 'best' and most famous institutions. Massively expand apprenticeship numbers to take up the 'slack' among those who are now put off the very high fees English universities are charging. Thirdly, put back the date at which part time and mature students have to pay back their hybrid loan-taxes.

But it's all rushed, contingent, hurried - a madcap dash to shore up a system that is going to cost the taxpayer and the student more in the short term, without delivering any really clear benefits in the long run. Lifting the 'cap' off AAB courses is likely to do long-term harm to the prospects of strategic and shortage subjects, as well as the next two tiers of universities, who will find their students sucked away by topics and departments that may be no better academically, but are certainly more prestigious. Expanding apprenticeship numbers this quickly bolsters the dangerous myth that university expansion has 'gone too far' (for other people's children, of course). Many of these new 'courses' are rebranded corporate training courses that, while worthy, don't foster transferable skills in the way apprenticeships should in the public's imagination. And lastly, who is really listening among part-time students to one-year fee remissions? Does anyone really think that makes a difference to low income families' spending decicions when sums as large as £50,000 are bandied about? Er, no.

All in all, it adds massively to the confusion. That's one of the elements students and young people themselves, such as Callum Hurley and Katy Moore (above) are complaining about. As they put it, launching a probably-doomed legal bid to halt the fee increases, 'this makes it difficult to decide what to do about our futures'.

Heath Robinson fixes? They won't work. But you need public policy experts, conscious of the passage of time, the realities of decision-making and the confused fog that stands between governed and governors to tell you why.

It's just another example of the value of the humanities to the nation.

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