Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The topsy-turvy world of English universities policy

I've concluded that university policy in England is in a mess so many times that it feels pointless to say any more. Suffice to say, none of it will work properly, and it will be reconstructed in the next Parliament whoever wins (or doesn't win) the next General Election. UK universities as a whole are extraordinarily successful in all sorts of ways, but for years this has been instead of government, rather than because of it.

I would call for a Royal Commission to start from a 'clean sheet of paper', but that sounds too rational and too meticulous for an age of crazy quick fixes that everyone knows will fail in the end (e.g. the Greek 'bailout' that will almost certainly be followed by another, and another...) In the meantime, private efforts, recommendations and commissions, speaking some truth to power, will have to suffice.

The imbroglio over the appointment of Les Ebdon (above) as head of the beefed-up Office for Fair Access is another instance of just this botched 'reform'. Professor Ebdon is a vigorous and effective campaigner for both wider access to Higher Education, and for 'his' part of the sector (he's served for some years as head of the Million+ group of universities, representing many former polytechnics). Conservative MPs didn't like the idea of appointing someone to this role who actually meant what they said - and would actually use his powers, as he said, to force universities to open their doors to students from a more varied set of backgrounds. So they tried to block him. Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Secretary of State responsible, insisted on Ebdon's appointment - but, in a classic coalition stitch-up, had to agree to the Conservative goal of allowing richer students to pay back their loans more quickly.

There was the fig leaf, of course, that some evidence suggests that all graduates - whatever their background - will try advance payments. But few were fooled that we were witnessing a 'tit for tat' exercise where access was traded for quicker payment - for those who can afford to avoid interest payments. The truth is that we are wasting our talents if we narrow our focus to attainment, rather than potential, at 18+... and that everyone, even conservatives, knows that thought must be given to background and past support when considering achievements at that age.

So policy really does now seem to be in a looking-glass land, where those realities matter less than a good old-fashioned inter-party carve-up. As the education commentator Mike Baker has pointed out, you really couldn't make it up - as I've said elsewhere. Consider a good that, when you come to pay for it, bears no relation whatsoever to how 'good' or 'bad' it was. You'll pay exactly the same per month whether you go for a £6,000 or a £9,000 degree. Sure, you'll pay for longer in the latter case, but since earnings will continue to crawl upwards, since inflation will continue, and since they'll be cancelled in the end - perhaps when the scheme collapses or is 'reformed' - you might as well gamble on the latter scenario. So there's absolutely no incentive whatsoever to keep prices down - especially as unmet demand is so high. To meet this case, the government have been dangling some of 'its' (in reality, the taxpayer's) places in front of universities who lower their fees. They do this by raising their fee waivers for students from lower-income backgrounds - and cutting the very bursaries that would help and encourage such students in the first place.

You couldn't make it up. Indeed. But you wouldn't want to, either.

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