White paper will need to retrieve the situation


The delayed Higher Education White Paper has taken on a new importance.

The Government is in some disarray over its HE policy and needs to find a way out of its self- inflicted problems. The first problem is that the Government has cut the teaching budget by far too much at the same time as allowing higher fees. Universities might have been expected to bear a 15 or 20% cut, says Conor Ryan in his blog, but an 80% cut is absurd, and it makes it inevitable that most will seek to compensate by increasing fees as far as they have. So why is there any surprise that a majority of universities are opting to charge £9,000 in fees given that cuts in Government funding mean that universities will have to charge around £7,500 just to maintain current levels of income?

For top universities to compete globally they were always going to go for the £ 9,000 fees anyway, for to go for anything less would have suggested a signal lack of ambition. For lesser universities to go for a low fee might make them look too cheap and, well, second tier.  But the Treasury has been calculating all along on an average fees hike of around £7,500. Like most Treasury forecasts though it transpires it was wildly off beam. Analysis by the consultancy London Economics suggests that the additional cost to the exchequer of an average £8,000 fee is £181.2m in 2010 prices. At £8,500 it is £360m. With many more students going for higher loans to cover the increased fees the Government has not actually budgeted for the increase so a big funding gap has emerged, which needs to be filled, and   which will probably mean even less places available in HE, as if our young people don’t have enough on their plates already.

Ministers made two wrong  calls.  First they assumed that only a few universities would opt for the £9,000 fees. Then they assumed that they, or OFFA, had  powers to force universities or at least intimidate them  into line.  Both mistakes were entirely avoidable.

Conor Ryan, (Blunkett’s former Education Adviser when he was Secretary of State), has come up with three suggestions as to how they might dig themselves out of this hole.  He says on his blog: First- on access, it should actively encourage merit-based access programmes, including those that offer places conditional on slightly lower grades to the ablest students in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The focus needs to be on access for the poorest, not state school students who don’t need an extra leg up. Secondly, on overseas students, while continuing to clamp down on bogus colleges, it needs to craft an attractive package for genuine students that tells them they are welcome rather than tolerated – and that includes access to skilled jobs in the two years after graduation. The Home Office should not be allowed to kill this vital export industry.  And finally, the Government should require universities that wish to charge £9000 a year to bear some of the liability for the loans that this will lead to, rather than trying to micromanage the market any further. By all means, auction some funded places to the lowest bidder and encourage FE and private alternatives, but do so by allowing more rather than less of a competitive environment to develop, where students can make informed choices. Getting this right is vital for students and universities says Ryan (Ryan is listened to by Tories because he supports Academies and Free schools and is Blairite Labour- more Adonis than Burnham)

There are fears that the government may use the delayed White Paper on university funding to limit costs such as limiting student numbers or redistributing students to cheaper FE College. One way out presumably is to have no fees cap at all, but cap loans instead. It’s not clear which policy (two brains) Willetts will go for – indeed it’s not clear at all, as one wag has clocked, that his left-hand brain knows what his right-hand brain is doing. (Ok, so its  a bit below the belt but when Willetts took PPE at University maybe he should have been more attentive when studying the E module).  Meanwhile, Willetts, Simon Hughes et al are desperately trying to encourage greater access for poor students to universities . Central to this Governments education agenda is improving the lot of the most disadvantaged pupils (they hugely respect the work of the Sutton Trust by the way), getting more disadvantaged pupils into university. This is not, incidentally, because universities are an impediment to  social mobility,  (they have been investing in outreach programmes for years) which they  demonstrably are not but because the standards of too many state schools, and particularly those in the most  disadvantaged neighbourhoods are not even close to ensuring that pupils have the right level of  qualifications or indeed, in far too many cases, the right qualifications,  to enter university. Too many schools, of course, are failing to prepare  pupils for university. Pupils have neither good enough GCSEs nor acceptable  A levels. Just half of pupils at State schools get five good GCSE grades.   And, of course, many   schools (including, it has to be said, many Academies) have been ‘ gaming’ -in other words  entering pupils for soft qualifications that are not rated either by universities or employers.  There has long  been controversy about these “GCSE equivalent” courses, with  critics arguing that some schools put pupils in for them to gain credit under Labour’s league table measures. There is wide acceptance now that the existing equivalence formula overvalued some of these courses. And at A level too many pupils are sitting exams that are not rated by admission tutors.

There is no evidence, by the way, that Government interventions assist social mobility. Structural changes in the economy, ie demand for  more managerial posts, is much more of an influence on social mobility than anything else. And  if Universities are so important as  drivers for social mobility can anyone explain why the rapid expansion in university places in the last generation  from 10% to 42% has had no effect on social mobility, as  all recent reports confirm  that social mobility has stalled since the early 1970s.

Then  there is the issue of guidance. Too many pupils haven’t been given the right advice by their schools on what options to choose, if Higher Education is their aim,  or haven’t been given advice early enough ie  aged 13 and 14. The Russell groups view is that ‘ The most effective way of getting ‘disadvantaged’ students into the best universities is to help them to improve their academic performance and provide better advice and guidance at an early stage. Universities can and do help but we simply cannot solve these problems alone.’ Quite. The RG is also pretty fed up with the Government continuing to churn out figures relating to access and their members that are either   wrong or misleading.

It is also strange that the government , so keen  for  universities  to  improve  access, have not made funds available to do this. Instead, in effect it is left to debt laden students to subsidise improved access -is that fair?

None of this inspires much confidence, it has to be said , so there is growing pressure on the Government to sort the mess out, and it’s the main reason, surely, why the White Paper on HE has been delayed.


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