Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Academic history and the ideas that could never fly


Public policy analysts - including The Historian - don't like to gloat. There's no point. To be honest, weeping is often more appropriate when policies we said would never fly go right off the rails. We don't want to say 'we told you so', with a wag of the finger and a sad shake of the head; we want to punch the air when things go right. When good, sound, historical and evidence-based ideas work.

But calling policymakers out when they roll out some stinkers is also part of the job.

So today, dear reader, we give you (yet again) two policies that are busy disintegrating before your eyes: university tuition fees and landlord checks on the immigration status of tenants

We've condemned these again and again - and again. Why? Well, in the first case, because the money was obviously just never going to turn up. Treasury estimates were far too optimistic: about real wages; about the possibility of recouping loans from non-UK citizens; and about the Government's ability to hold down fees in the first place. What did we say, all the way back in February 2011? Well, take a look:
The problem here is that the new system bids fair to completely bankrupt the Exchequer, while delivering very few quality or efficiency gains. It's a slow-motion car crash - a system that won't work and can't work... The Treasury has assumed very high and rising graduate salaries, going up by 4.47% every year. They have rarely touched such dizzying heights, even in the booms of the 1980s and 1990s. If that figure sinks down to four per cent, or even three per cent, the whole scheme's sunk. This at a time when the system will probably expand, due to the dropping of the 'cap in detail' on each institution's numbers - so the relatively value of a degree will sink.
What do we find now, right up-to-date in 2013? Er, this blog was right all along. There's a massive black hole in the very structure of tuition fees. We're now edging towards a 40 per cent loss on this scheme, and think tanks and policy gurus of all sorts are scrabbling to think about how the UK might make up the shortfall. Cheaper courses? Shorter courses? A graduate tax? Your guess is as good as mine - and as good as Ministers', too.

Now let's move on to the stupid, ludicrous - and totally unworkable - idea that landlords would check the immigration documents of their tenants. Well, what could we possibly say about this so-called 'policy' that wasn't immediately evident? Who was going to enforce this? Who was going to train landlords? How could propertyowners possibly tell what was a real document, and what was a forgery? Here's 'Public Policy and the Past', now quite recently, raging on this one:
So let me get this straight. A supposedly liberal-conservative government wants to create a new bureaucratic array, a ragged army of snoopers, checkers, form-fillers and listeners-in... All for absolutely no purpose whatsoever. For anyone who believes that a single one of these ideas will change one migrant's idea about coming or not coming to the United Kingdom is deluded. What counts on that front is work - its absence or presence both here and in people's countries of origin... But it's worse than that, really. These proposed laws are ridiculous even given their own presumptions... Who's to look at tenants documentation? Agents? Landlords? How will the Government check if you've done it?
Now we learn - surprise, surprise - that this policy is being quietly abandoned (£). Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary (above), is letting it be known that this idea will only be applied in 'certain boroughs' - by which they mean London. Listen out, quite soon, for this concept to be quietly put out of its misery.

It's important to know your history - to know what is possible and what is likely, the potential shortfalls of promised govenrment revenue and the limits of bureaucracy in the real world. That's why groups such as History and Policy exist, beavering away at King's College London on drawing comparisons between past and present debacles. That's important in these specific cases, just as it always is in the generality.

But ask yourself: how did Special Advisers, civil servants and Ministers sign off on policies that were so obviously going to fail? Was it obedience? Wishful thinking? Over-ambition? Or just plain old-fashioned sloppiness?

Yours guess is as good as mine. One thing's for sure: I'm going to have a great time in the midst of these official papers, when they're released to the National Archives in between 18 and 20 years' time.

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