I was the civil servant who led the independent review of higher education funding in 2009, the precursor to fees shooting up to £9,000 a year. I received many detailed and searching criticisms of our proposals inside government. By contrast, the critique from Labour and the broader left was beside the point. Now, four years after the introduction of much higher fees, and on the publication of a new White Paper for universities, nothing much has changed.
There are two basic errors in how much of the left thinks about higher education; two muddles; and a big gap where its proper scrutiny of the government’s plans ought to be.
The first error is that the left has never got to grips with how fees work. They believe that students now bear the whole cost of higher education whereas in fact it is graduates who pay through the equivalent of a tax. Those who study high cost courses like lab-based science subjects receive a big chunk of public funding, and almost everyone gets some public contribution towards the cost of their course. This is up to 100% for those graduates who never go on to earn above £21,000 per year.
The most obvious proof that the left has failed to grasp these straightforward descriptions of the system is the policy on fees that Labour took into the 2015 general election. Ed Miliband professed that the long-term aim was a graduate tax – presumably so that high-income graduates would pay even more for higher education – while in the short-term avowing that a Labour Government would drop fees to £6,000 a year. In practice, dropping fees like this would mean that middle-class graduates pay less than they would otherwise. Miliband’s policy was the promise of a future tax rise combined with an immediate tax cut. Make sense of that if you can.
Liam Byrne, then Labour’s higher education spokesperson, did at least try. In the light of worsening forecasts for the cost of student loans, he argued for a reduction in fees on the basis of making the system more sustainable. But the government has found a different solution to that problem – freezing the repayment threshold and updating its assumption about the long run cost of government borrowing. These measures taken together reduce the impact of student loans for the public finances, so much so that the government is now gradually extending student finance to postgraduate students and some part-time ones.
The second error that the left makes is to oppose on instinct the expansion of higher education. The latest version of this is to be scornful about the government’s aim to certify more providers of higher education. Yet Labour in government also sought to expand the number of providers, most recently through the University Challenge initiative that I also worked on in 2007. One of the objectives of that scheme was to create higher education provision in parts of the country where there wasn’t enough. Those gaps still exist. Equally, expansion will typically benefit students from more disadvantaged backgrounds who may, due to persistent inequalities in school outcomes, have fewer opportunities to enter established universities. We need to change that too – and the government agrees – but opposing expansion in higher education per se is to protect incumbents in the sector at the cost of diminishing the potential opportunities available for students. There’s nothing egalitarian about that.
Then there are the muddles, criticisms too murky in their aims to even be called errors. The first of these is that the government is turning higher education into a market. To the left, plainly that’s a bad thing, and we don’t even need to say why. But what does it mean for higher education to be a market? Students choose universities and universities choose them; that much is clear. By necessity, there are choices and contracts. But I don’t think many on the left want to forcibly allocate students to courses and universities, regardless of their own decisions. Nor do they want to place students under the control of universities – giving them some rights is the decent thing to do.
The left might argue that such rights could be more like those of citizens than consumers. Take the point that far and I can understand it, but then citizens should have plenty of information about the communities they are citizens of, and a say in what happens inside their community. The government’s White Paper can easily be read as giving students these very rights. Arguably the government’s view doesn’t differ so much from the NUS conception of a partnership between students and institutions. At the very least, there is the basis for a constructive dialogue. But instead of joining such a dialogue the instinct of many on the left is to deploy the bogey terms ‘market’ and ‘consumer’ and never clarify what it is they object to in detail.
The other dimension of this magical thinking is university autonomy. There’s plenty of talk on the left about universities now being subject to the vicissitudes of the market. They are no longer free sites of knowledge because they are under the discipline of the market. Yet this criticism is informed by amnesia. Before fees became the leading source of funding for universities, most of the funding was allocated by the government. The government set the amount of funding for every course – in other words, determined to a large extent the model for teaching – and capped the number of students that each university could recruit. Those controls have gone or are diminishing in the new system envisaged by the current government.
It’s a common view on the left to assume that a government bureaucracy will always give truer expression to the public good than members of the public making choices for themselves, but the unlikeliness of that claim is particularly pronounced in higher education where universities are more autonomous now (in the so-called market) than they were in the bosom of the state.
By now I must sound like an apologist for the present government. But there are real issues about the White Paper proposals: the Teaching Excellence Framework runs the risk of further bureaucratising university departments. It may also drive a wedge between some students and their teachers, replacing the sense of a common endeavour with abstract metrics. The system for regulating new providers of higher education needs to show a high level of vigilance. And the potential for fees to vary in the future will revive a long-postponed controversy.
Proper scrutiny of what the government is proposing on issues like these is necessary. In the context of the government’s small parliamentary majority, it is also likely to yield results. But for the moment the left is poorly equipped to manage the task. On the topic of higher education it is muddled and lost.