Friday, 14 September 2012

England's universities: how not to make policy

It's difficult to know where to start when one considers the knots Vince Cable and David Willetts (above) have tied themselves in over English Higher Education policy.

Let's start with the most pressing issue in most people's minds: the new and higher fees structure. Regular readers will remember that clever-clever BIS officials and politicians had two cunning plans to hold down costs: their so-called 'core and margin' scheme, under they would auction off cheap places to HE and FE Colleges, and their 'AAB' idea, which meant that 'top' universities could take as many students as they like. This might encourage (Ministers said behind their hands) everyone else to cut their costs and prices to compete.

How's that all going, then? Er, well, as we said all along - it isn't. It's a farce.

Ministers have already abandoned the complex and unworkable 'core and margin' idea. Now they're discovering that their 'AAB' concept, which basically tore the cap off previously-regulated Russell Group numbers inside the more prestigious universities, isn't working either. Instead of rushing to those universities (which often seem the most desirable inside Ministers' 1950s imaginations), the chaos caused has meant that a lot of our most prestigious research universities have lost numbers across the board. Confused? Well, consider this: if you didn't make your AAB offer, and you fell to ABB, these institutions would probably drop you, as you counted under their cap and they might indeed get fined for letting you in. Rather than go into clearing, or try to pick up an AAB student from somewhere else (for which they often don't have the administrative capacity), they would then probably have to leave that place empty.

What a mess. The opposite of what was intended on every level.

And that's without looking at non-EU student visa targets and rules that change all the time. What did we say here, at Public Policy and the Past? That those numbers should be taken out of the overall, absurd and totally unreachable target of less than 100,000 in net UK migration every year. Now Ministers are scrambling to start just that process. Nice work, guys.

What else could we look at? Their failure even to bring in a Higher Education Bill, leaving the whole sector splatchcocked together and adrift? The Government's failure even to come out with a strategy for graduate study? Take your pick.

What's happening here is that policy-makers are inching out ever further into quicksands that they have never even tried to map, let alone fully understand. Charge more fees, they thought - but then, 'oh, that'll cost a lot'. Try to constrain costs by messing with admissions, they thought - only to abandon a more sensible post-A Level route that would allow universities and students to get all their ducks in a line, and avoid the AAB system's absurd results. Then they found that A-Level grades were sagging, perhaps due to reforms over at Education - something else they hadn't considered, and which has also helped to wreck the whole idea of taking the cap off 'elite' places.

Joined-up government? Any government at all would be a start.

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