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Some good news from (and for) David Willetts, who declares that "our University revolution has only just begun"

By Paul Goodman
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None of the special interests concerned likes the Government's decision to raise tuition fees by up to £9000 a year - a tripling of the ceiling.

  • Students don't like it because many will consequently owe more than £30,000.
  • Parents who in many cases went to University effectively free of charge don't like it because they worry about their children's indebtedness.
  • The more successful Universities don't like it because they want to be able to charge far more than £9000.
  • The less successful ones don't like it because they believe if they charge less than £9000 it will signal their weakness, and if they charge up to £9000 students won't apply to them and they will consequently close.
  • The Liberal Democrats don't like it because their manifesto opportunistically committed them to oppose higher tuition fees.  They have consequently pushed for "fair access", and Simon Hughes has been appointed as the Coalition’s "Advocate on Access".
  • The Conservatives don't altogether like it because they distrust "fair access" (and dislike Hughes).  They think that "fair access" will mean that children who have been privately educated will be punished because their parents were able and willing to pay for them to escape the failures of the state system.  They worry that now these children will be punished through no fault of their own - because others with lower grades will obtain their University places instead.  They believe this, unsurprisingly, to be unjust - and that it will hit a core group of party supporters.

And the man presiding over the whole kaboodle is David Willetts who, as nearly everyone concerned has pointed out, has written a brilliant study of intergenerational unfairness.

There have been solemn warnings of plumetting student numbers in the autumn, when the new maxiumum comes in - particularly among poorer young people.  It is therefore only fair to report that there are some reasons to be cheerful amidst all this despondency, as Willetts is keen to point out to today's readers of the Daily Telegraph.

He writes that: 

"Already, more people have applied to start university in 2012 than there are places available. So yet again it will be very competitive.

The Ucas numbers also show that applications from young people with disadvantaged backgrounds have held steady. They fell by just 0.2 per cent on last year’s all-time high. There has admittedly been a slight decline among young people from more affluent households, but more than half of 18 year olds from wealthy backgrounds apply to university compared to fewer than 20 per cent of those from poorer backgrounds. So there is no evidence that middle-class applicants are being penalised."

The Higher Education Minister also argues that "our reforms offer an opening to new providers, with all institutions accessing public money on a level playing field", that "new providers can drive improvements, including efficiencies, throughout the whole of higher education' and that "we want British institutions to be at the forefront of the globalisation of higher education because, despite the prestige of our universities, we are at risk of being overtaken by other countries".

I suppose Willetts has no alternative but to write that "Simon Hughes, the Coalition’s Advocate on Access, has really helped us to get the message across".  He also confirms that the Government's preferred Director for Fair Access is Les Ebdon, the vice chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire.  Parents and students have yet the feel the pinch of the fair access regime, to borrow the title of the Minister's book.

The Government certainly has no alternative to the tuition fees policy itself if Britain's universities are to be good quality and student numbers are to remain high (since the taxpayer simply can't afford to fund their fees).  "Those institutions that succeed are likely to be those that are more accountable to their students", Willetts writes today.  This is suggesting directly that market pressures are going to have their way.

Which in due course will surely mean fewer Universities and higher fees.  The unwillingness of young people to take on substantial debt will clash with the sense that higher education boosts potential earning power: young people will peruse University "league tables" more closely.  It is more rare for Ministers to get pieces in the papers than used to be the case, and Willetts will be pleased to have done so today.  But the fair access muddle remains his policy's achilles heel.


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