Wednesday, 2 April 2014

English universities' tuition fees: deeper into the mire


It's never pleasant watching Ministers - of any party - twist and turn as they realise that they've painted themselves in a corner. And so it is with the Universities Minister, David Willetts, and his increasingly furrowed brow as he considers England's great tuition fees debacle - predicted on this blog again and again, of course. It charges the taxpayer just as much (possibly more than the old system). And it puts more debt on graduates. And it doesn't deliver much of a cash boost to universities. Well, that is a neat trick indeed - more money in, from everyone, and not much more product out. How have Conservative and Liberal Democrat Ministers managed it? It defies all logic.

Anyway, the really worrying thing now is what they think they're going to do about it - how they're going to contain rapidly-rising costs that were always going to threaten to bankrupt the system from the off. Impose aptitude tests to show that students are 'ready' for university? When they've already backed off pre-entry A-Levels, a necessary and reforming move that would have made universities' lives so much easier? It seems unlikely. And the really, really bad idea of stopping universities charging fees at all if they don't meet employability targets has been floated. Let's just have a think about this one. Suppose there's a recession. There'll be another one again, one day. Graduate employment will crash - just as earnings have stagnated in recent years. And then universities will suddenly find themselves cut off. Will Ministers really bail them out, or stop them charging altogether and let them go to the wall? Er, no, of course they won't. The threat is empty, and they know it.

The Labour Party's remedies aren't all that much better. Lowering the charging threshold to £6,000, before moving to a graduate tax, is fraught with the danger that the Treasury will try and choke off some of the cash in the confusion. Whatever else it has done, the £9,000 fees system has seen money continuing to flow into Higher Education coffers - with no observable impact on recruitment from non-traditional backgrounds, despite critics' fears. And will No. 11 Downing Street really allow a hypothecated tax to take root in the UK, after all these years of resisting it? How will Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish ex-students working in England be tracked and exempted? Your guess it as good as mine - and Labour's.

The truth is that we've got ourselves into a quagmire. With every step it gets worse, as the Heath-Robinson machine just needs another little fix here, and a tweak there, until no-one understands it at all - a bit like the 'new' National Health Service after years of micro-meddling. It's a classic example of unsuccessful 'puzzling', rather than 'powering' - inching forwards into the public policy labyrinth without a clue about its shape, the desired terminal point, or even how to navigate. Now each new crawling step feels like it's over glass, and going very slowly we know not where.

It would have been far better, from the point of view of the risk to which taxpayers are exposed, to have stayed with a simpler low fee, with the Government picking up most of the tab at source. If there weren't accounting reasons for charging very high fees (they appear on the assets, rather than the liabilities, side of the Exchequer's spreadsheet) we would have. Germany is abolishing tuition fees. Maybe, just maybe, England will go the same way.

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