The Coalition Government is in terminal decline. Its sense of purpose has dissipated and internal politics threaten to derail the enterprise. The higher education policy circus that came to town in 2010 reflects more than ever the tensions within the Coalition and the bizarre, inconsistent and occasionally bad policy-making that stems from this faltering political arrangement. The Coalition’s expiry date is May 2015, and despite the entire Government machine fixing its sights on that date, things may fall apart before then.
Perceived wisdom in higher education policy is that we are living through one of those paradigm-shifting moments. The sort that comes around every ten years or so, often led by a high-profile review like Robbins or Dearing. But Browne’s report was fudge and the Government’s response an even bigger one because the dynamic of the Coalition prevented the development of a coherent strategy. This is not one of those big moments, but rather a slightly unsettling time driven by both the highest and lowest politics. For policy, this manifests itself in many different ways – from the debacle over the OFFA Director appointment to the strange new methods for controlling student numbers. But if the Conservatives win the next election, history will surely record these years merely as a bridge between Labour and Tory power. Ask yourself what a majority Conservative Government may wish to do to higher education, and other spheres of life, once unshackled from their Coalition partners. There will be no more need to fudge policy-making through such laborious and opaque negations, which necessarily produce a less satisfactory and more ideologically compromised result.
But there is still much on the table in 2012, and it’s easy to get carried away, declaring some form of HE policy apocalypse. One of the great features of higher education is its ability to continuously reflect on its purpose – no wonder when we consider that the sector consists of some of the world’s cleverest people and many of its deepest thinkers. You’ll often hear that “now is the time” to consider the purpose of HE thanks to the Government’s meddling. The truth is that it is always time to reflect on such questions. But we need perspective that’s hard to achieve when in the thick of it.
The rumours about the prospect of HE moving to DfE and Michael Gove have been causing particular hysteria in some quarters (understandable when you consider the prospect of Gove with his finger on the HE policy button), but there are several good reasons why this may not happen, at least in this Parliament. The Evening Standard last week described Vince Cable as the Minister that is ‘too big to fail’ – and they are right. He’d be a great threat to Nick Clegg on the backbenches and he’s not going to let his Department be broken up in a hurry. Last week, his letter to David Cameron calling for a rethink on the Government’s industrial policy was leaked. The letter reaching the public realm was good for Cable – it showed a Secretary of State in command of some important issues and prepared to fight for them. However, it also illustrated how deeply divided this Government is about its economic and industrial policy.
Vince Cable is playing a very long game and has shown a unique ability to be viewed as an outsider in the Coalition, yet remain at the heart of Government policy-making. This will serve him well after the Coalition breaks up.
Higher education is unlikely to be the catalyst for that breakup, but the gulf of opinion about HE, and the hurt feelings in the Lib Dems about the vote on fees and subsequent backlash, will make it an easier decision when the time truly comes. Peter Oborne in the Telegraph writes that the Coalition will not see out 2013. A perfect storm could brew over Nick Clegg’s planned constitutional reforms, coupled with fallout from the controversial boundary change proposals and a crisis in any of the issues on which the two parties remain hopelessly polarised – Europe, tax, health, trade policy, family policy etc. could bring it all tumbling down. Jackie Ashley writing in today’s Guardian agrees. She writes that the Lib Dems are only now waking up to “just how nasty the Tories really can be” as Conservative MPs attempt to sink Nick Clegg’s Lords Reform proposals that remain so critical for his party to demonstrate achievement in Government.
But let’s not forget that the Coalition has an inbuilt expiry date anyway – the 2015 General Election. The two parties will at some point be forced to part company in order to fight that election, perhaps with Nick Clegg remaining as DPM but with a new Lib Dem leader to bring the fight to the Tories. The question is whether they can hang on that long, or if the Coalition will fall apart some time between now and then. Another possibility is for the Coalition to be downgraded to a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement to keep a Government in place until the next election, but such a scenario will make it very difficult to enact much controversial legislation. If things were to deteriorate to such an extent, the Government will be disincentivised from driving forward legislation on many of the fault-lines between the two parties (e.g. an HE Bill), when its survival hangs in the balance.
The relentless countdown to 2015 is clearly felt across Government, as all policy initiatives and strategies are systematically framed around what can be achieved in this time. It also seems as if there is growing paranoia, particularly as events increasingly fray the Coalition. Last week, the Government announced its student finance arrangements for 2013/14 as is their statutory responsibility. There was something curious about it though: maximum fees are to remain at 2012/13 levels in that year. Without inflation, this represents a real terms cut to universities in 2013/14.
This policy benefits nobody apart from the Lib Dems. The only conceivable reason for quietly freezing fees in this way is to prevent £9,000 creeping up to £10,000 by 2015, an election year. £10,000 is a nice round number that will be used to remind people of the Lib Dem’s complicity in the Coalition’s HE policy. The freeze gives the Lib Dems some degree of cover against that otherwise inevitable storm.
Without a major unforeseen shift, it is a distinct possibility that the Conservatives will win the next election outright. The policy concessions that they were forced to make to the Lib Dems will evaporate. Forget the Browne Review, and endless Lib Dem/Tory machinations over universities, which gave us some truly bizarre, and often really terrible higher education policy-making. Unburdened by internal strife, the Government will able to implement an ideological plan that pushes further and makes less concessions. And in such a scenario, the cap on fees itself should be placed on life support. Our current ‘uncertain times’ may look preferable.
So let’s continue asking the really big questions about higher education. But ultimately it might be at the ballot box that we have our only real opportunity to shape its future.