The Government’s friendless higher education policies may have another enemy that has been lying relatively low; the Tory right. Yesterday the Government announced their Social Mobility Strategy which has been broadly welcomed by most. But right-wing Tory, and one-time leadership hopeful David Davis, used the opportunity to further his libertarian argument that would see the retreat of the state in almost every aspect of life, including laws designed to rebalance unfair socio-economic realities. Included in his complaint are measures to ensure that universities take state school applicants through what many view as the discredited and largely toothless OFFA regime which in any case allows institutions to set their own benchmarks for success, rather than complying with a Whitehall edict.
On the historic failure of the education system to ensure opportunities for the poorest, Davis writes; “Will even the deeply un-conservative (and, incidentally, illiberal) ideas of state-school quotas for universities dent this apparently intractable problem? One only has to ask the question to recognise that the answer is, probably not.” David Davis is seemingly in favour of “poor kids” having access to higher education, but apparently has faith that this could happen naturally if only Government would stop legislating (apart from with a new regime of academic selection).
Davis’ voice alone might not turn up the temperature in the corridors of power, but he represents a sizeable group of Tory MPs that are naturally hostile to the Coalition Government and deeply suspicious of Lib Dem-led policy making within it. As we have well documented, this is an issue of significant weakness for the Coalition, thanks to HE funding policies that are on the brink of failure and its discredited, largely Lib Dem-inspired counter-measures. Vince Cable is today making a public return to the HE fray with a keynote speech to HEFCE’s Annual Conference where he will moot a ‘core and margin’ student numbers control to offset the deficit between the higher than expected average fee, and previously agreed settlement with the Treasury. Complicated, messy and hard to implement, but for many universities far more palatable then threats to vindictively cut into to QR. But it also quashes further any hope of a true market in higher education and is, like access agreements, susceptible to attacks from the right who would sooner free universities from all such “illiberal” measures.
If the Tory right – scenting an area of weakness for the Coalition – decide to use this opportunity to attack, we could be in for an even bumpier ride than expected.