Willetts criticised for quota system-why can’t universities be demand led?


Harriet Sergeant, who has authored reports for the Centre Right think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies and takes a particular interest in disengaged youth, writing in the Daily Mail  last month  (26 August) likened David Willetts, the Minister responsible for Universities, to a Stalinist apparatchik.

His crime?

To enforce centrally dictated quotas for universities so that if they over-recruit, they will be fined heavily. In short, they can’t respond to increased demand. Sergeant  claims this makes Willetts a social engineer ( a term of abuse in Tory ranks ).

Rather than focusing on the need to improve schools and prepare pupils for the demands of Higher Education, he, like Ministers in the last government, wants to force universities to take state pupils with lower grades, she claims. Willetts has recently upset many in Tory ranks by implying that he wouldn’t oppose a graduate tax, seen as a key  Lib Dem proposal, as opposed to a rise in tuition fees, which most Tories favour and which the Browne review into funding is  very likely to recommend. The Lib Dems  also in their manifesto ,said that they wanted to phase out tuition fees over a six year period, which many in Higher Education feel would simply destroy the sectors  ability not just to compete but to survive. Willetts looks as though he is trying to get the Lib Dems out of a hole, but in so doing he may be losing his own side. and undermining his political position.

The Government has stopped good universities expanding in the way they want — by taking on the best students — and has created  instead the present chaotic system, Sergeant writes. So, Universities are turning away pupils with straight As, because the Government fines them £3,700 for every student that they recruit above ‘centrally planned quotas’.  And it is here that you have to pinch yourself. Centrally planned quotas? Are we living in Stalinist Russia with David Willetts as the Chief Commissar? asks Sergeant  To understand the absurdity of the situation, she continues, apply the same concept to Tesco. You can just imagine Commissar Willetts addressing the supermarket’s management. ‘Your sales of cornflakes has doubled this month?  Cut the supply by half or we will fine you for every extra packet you sell.’

She is right,  but only up to a point.

Universities should be able to respond to demand of course. But it is hardly likely, with on –going Government cuts, across the public sector, that Willetts is going to now offer good universities a blank cheque  to expand. This seems to be what Sergeant is after.

The fact is that the Higher Education sector has never operated as a market, despite the best efforts of people like Professor Steven Schwarz, the US born academic and the former Vice Chancellor of Brunel University   to change the sectors mindset and culture. Universities, he said, should operate a free market based on student vouchers, and should be free to expand or limit the number of places they offer according to demand. Students would be able to influence what was taught, by whom and when.  “We could let the market decide,” he wrote in the Financial Times a few years ago.  Schwartz claimed that under the existing system students are often not admitted to their preferred university even if they get good A-levels. “Such students try their second choice, or third or even fourth, until they finally find a university that will admit them. By limiting the number of subsidised undergraduate places in any university, the government protects the less popular institutions and courses,” he wrote .He added: “If funding followed students through the use of vouchers, universities would be cut loose from quotas and allowed to enrol as many or as few students as they wished.”

The sector, though, currently operates, as it has always done, as a producer cartel.  So, HE is supply, not demand led. Of course some universities, the top universities as it happens, would like to respond better to demand.  But others would be less comfortable with this idea. Allowing money to follow the student would mean, as sure as night follows day,  some going out of business, including some of those with the most disadvantaged students.

Universities going out of business is probably not good politics in the current environment, with high levels of youth unemployment and little on the horizon to suggest much will change for the good in the next few years.  Nonetheless, the fact is over the medium term our universities will be facing more and more world class competition and the sector is not well positioned or prepared to cope. One of our major competitors will be Australia. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Professor Schwartz decided to return to Australia in 2006 to become Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University.


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