Willetts’ horse and cart

I have commented before about the way in which the Coalition’s changes to the funding of higher education are being brought about. Aside from arguments over the value of a degree, who should pay and the ‘marketisation’ of higher education, the cart-before-the-horse style adopted by David Willetts and co in making their reforms beggars belief.

In December, they passed an amendment that increased the fees universities could charge for degrees to between £6,000 and £9,000.  They declared that only under ‘exceptional circumstances’ could the higher rate be charged and that higher fees would come with responsibilities to widen access and offer reductions and partial waivers to those from lower-income backgrounds.  All well and good… in theory. Except that universities have been left in the dark while trying to price up their degrees, as hundreds of Oxbridge acamedics have written to the minister this week. It’s nice to hear someone making this point so publicly.

More and more universities are planning to charge the full £9000, indeed it seems unlikely that any insitution will charge significantly less. Certainly the Russell Group and 1994 Group institutions (i.e the pre-1992 universities) will not; the interesting thing may be what the more financially savvy and socially-diverse newer universities do.

The reasoning behind the rushing through of the tuition fee hike was to enable each university to set their fees before producing their prospectus for the potential 2012 intake (i.e. the current AS-level students).  This seems reasonable, but is the wrong way around: the regulations about what charging the higher fee levels will entail should come before universities are required to make the decision over their fees so that they know what the repercussions of charging higher fees will be.  Even assuming that they will all (or almost all) plump for the top level, the implications of that choice surely need to be part of how universities plan for the future – for their investment in courses and in scholarships/bursaries.

It should be that these decisions are made by institutions that know what restrictions they face, rather than regulations being designed knowing how many and which universities are charging what level of fees. Since part of the point is to bring market forces into higher education, and given that clarity and knowledge of conditions in the setting of prices are keys to an effective market, this seems utterly ludicrous. (This is far from the only flaw in the market-for-HE policy direction, but a fairly obvious one)

Last week, David Willetts went one step further and declared that the reason that the higher education white paper that had been due this month is to be delayed because the universities should decide their fee levels first (to see how “price-setting works this spring”).  It is now government policy to put the university cart before the horse!

Maybe BIS are being much more wily and cynical than one would expect of a government department.  By holding back the decision and information on what the ‘exceptional circumstances’ allowing a £9000 degree will be, they have lured the universities into a commitment to undertaking anything that the department (and government or parliament more broadly) decides that that level of fees will entail.  Any university charging over £7500 might be required to build a statue of Vince Cable, or to adopt a village in Africa, or something.  More likely they will be forced to take more ethnic-minority students and people from low-income backgrounds.  From that point of view they may well be shuffling their way obtusely towards the kind of goal that Simon Hughes will be arguing (both in public and in private) for – greater inclusion.

So maybe there will be a plus side to this charade, but at the moment we do not know.

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