This article is more than 9 years old

Politicians: please don’t screw it up

In his first public comments since leaving the Civil Service, BIS' former Head of Higher Education Matthew Hilton and new DVC at Kingston University reflects on the big questions to which we’ll be looking to answer after May, as well as the nature of decision making itself.
This article is more than 9 years old

Matthew Hilton is Deputy Vice Chancellor and Secretary, Kingston University and former head of higher education, BIS.

Moving, as I did just a few weeks ago, from the Civil Service to the higher education sector has had me reflecting quite a bit. And I’ve been reflecting not only on the big questions to which we’ll be looking to the politicians (and their advisers) for answers after May, but also on the nature of that decision making itself.

In an episode of Spitting Image years ago, the Norman Lamont puppet was trying to convince the John Major puppet that people would believe anything if you kept saying it often enough. His method was to repeat himself over and over again until Major accepted it as truth. It was funny because it was true. Politics isn’t about real facts; it’s about how and when proposals are presented. In political discourse, ‘facts’ are just the proposals that ultimately end up winning. And now, we’re all looking forward at 2015, wondering what the next set of winning proposals might be.

Whoever wins the General Election in May will certainly have some big HE issues to resolve: Level of fees, the approach to regulation of the sector, the role of HEFCE, the relationship between quality and markets, postgraduate education – to name a few. Right now, in this final period before the election, the politicians and their advisers will be formulating their own proposals, hoping that they’ll be able to present them at a time and in a manner that will mean that they can become the next set of facts.

Many of us in the sector have firm views about the issues that are now at stake. We know what will keep this sector great and make it win. And that’s how the conversations will be going. One side with views based (in some way or other) on experience; the other side seeking to formulate a winning position that is nothing to do with experience, but everything to do with the relativities of political competition.

But what worries me the most is that proposals might, just because they are said often enough, become facts. And quite possibly, they could prove to be bad facts.

Let’s look at where we are now. Fundamentally, I don’t think there is (necessarily) a great deal wrong with the way the rules for HE in England are currently set up. The evidence seems to suggest a healthy enough sector, managing its way pretty successfully through some turbulent economic times. Arguments should and will continue about the specifics of policy. But as for some of the noises we hear about long term lack of viability and holes in financial modelling stretching out generations into the future? Come off it. There’s a mixing up of apples and pears here, of stocks and flows, of facts and politics.

For example, as a matter of fact, the government could reduce the RAB charge to whatever it wanted at a stroke, and within the existing overall policy framework, just by adopting a different approach to the financial management of the student loan book. If interest rates, repayment levels etc. were able to flex in line with the macro-economic context, the RAB issue would go away. But the politics doesn’t allow for that. The requirements that matter are not those of rational economic behaviour, but of the need to manage all the angles in a way that keeps the politics on track.

Looking to the future, I hope that that next government will be able to give us the clarity of vision, the stability of rules and the avoidance of tinkering-at-the-margins that will best allow us to plan and execute our own institutional strategies. Ideally with enough money available to back all this up. On the basis of where the HE reform of recent years has got to, I see no reason why an overall approach of that sort should be unachievable – although the money remains the least certain factor.

My worry is that, in an election year, moderation, continuity, consensus-building and ‘nudge’ policy-making can not easily compete with politicians’ need to win one over their opponent by making unequivocal promises, outside any consideration of what context demands.

I’m hoping that the politicians avoid the temptation to make rash promises that turn out not to fit the lived reality of running and working in universities. I’m hoping that all those involved can avoid HE policy becoming a race for factional approval.

The facts will (in part) be what the commentators choose to declare to be so. So, come on, all you politicians, remember that if you keep repeating them, they might just become the truth. Please, don’t screw it up.

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