This article is more than 11 years old

Taking it to the limit

The HE White Paper is currently sitting on the desks of the No.10 policy wonks. Their beefed up unit charged with ensuring that everything this Government does is consistent with The Plan. So much ink has been spilt in pursuit of the underlying forces, the guiding principles, the motivations. The reason why David Cameron gets up in the morning. Over the last 12 months, much of the mainstream media has been sent on a wild goose chase. They assumed it would be this unsettling, unknown quantity of ‘coalition’ that would be driving everything. But what if the truth was so much simpler?
This article is more than 11 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

The HE White Paper is currently sitting on the desks of the No.10 policy wonks. Their beefed up unit charged with ensuring that everything this Government does is consistent with The Plan. So much ink has been spilt in pursuit of the underlying forces, the guiding principles, the motivations. The reason why David Cameron gets up in the morning.

Over the last 12 months, much of the mainstream media has been sent on a wild goose chase. They assumed it would be this unsettling, unknown quantity of ‘coalition’ that would be driving everything. But what if the truth was so much simpler?

Much has been made of the Health White Paper ‘debacle’. But as time passes, and plans solidify, the whole thing looks more and more like a very clever ruse. Publish an inflammatory White Paper. Bring your ideas to their logical conclusions and test them to destruction. Send your Minister out as cannon fodder. Let him be torn apart. Then step in at the end with ‘revised proposals’ and look like you’re saving the policy day. But the recommended changes accepted by the Government today are surely more of a change in tone than substance. So don’t kid yourself; this Government will revolutionise the NHS and they will do so in most of the ways they wanted. And they bring a brand of free-market ideology that would have made Margaret Thatcher’s eyes water, and bizarrely, is not out of tune with the feelings of those on the all-powerful Lib Dem right.

The net result is a radical right-wing shake-up of the NHS. Andrew Lansley’s ego bruised but career very much in tact. The Plan still on track.

The perceived wisdom is that the No.10 wonks are poring through the HE White Paper to ensure that there will be nothing too inflammatory. Nothing that will upset people too much for fear of political ramifications. But what if the reverse is true? What if those same wonks are going through the document line-by-line asking ‘how can we be more radical, how can this go further, push harder?’

A draft White Paper fresh out of BIS, ready for No.10 scrutiny, will be laden down by bland and consensual ideas, David Willetts’ pet projects and initiatives that HEFCE could bore the sector in to submission with through consultation. Not very inspiring and not very radical. And the Treasury are seemingly relaxed about almost everything on the table – in previous years, they would have been the biggest sticking point. As Chancellor, Brown tried to row-back Blair’s reform agenda. But George Osborne is now the great enabler of his and the PM’s shared Plan. They make a potent partnership.

It’s hard to predict how the political landscape will shape up in 2015. The next General Election is a mystery. David Cameron knows that he can only plan for his project to last five years, so he needs to do a lot. And quickly. Next year, when the cuts start to bite and if unemployment rises, it’s going to be harder and harder for the Government to achieve radical reform. Now is their moment and they are pushing hard.

An added bonus for David Cameron and the Tories is that much of the blow-back of their policies seem to be landing on Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems. A Lib Dem wipeout in 2015 will largely benefit the Conservative Party thanks to the multitude of Tory/Lib Dem marginals. And that prospect looks more likely by the day.

After years under Labour, the higher education sector has become accustomed to Government’s interference on their turf being at worst; badly thought through and impossible to implement. At best they provided new ways to squeeze money out of the Exchequer. But most of the time they were just dull. This wonk remembers countless lost hours poring over bland DIUS documents. Hoping for a spark of life. But we’re living in very different times and we must not underestimate this Government’s reforming zeal or the ideologies that drive them.

No.10 doesn’t care about David Willetts’ plans to improve Unistats. They want to change this country irrevocably and they only have 4 more years to do it. It now looks highly likely that the White Paper will be published in the last week of June. But whenever it finally arrives, expect bold ideas – wide in scope, short on detail. A slab of red meat lobbed in to the fray. Our role in this part of The Plan is written.

But it’s not over ‘til it’s over.

4 responses to “Taking it to the limit

  1. Nice post. Quick q: if you think the white paper will be radical and move the debate forward, how much of a “green paper” do you think it will be?

    You seem to be suggesting a consultative (or trial by media paper). Will it be a real consultation or with the coalition continue it’s streak of being rubbish at consultations?

  2. I think it will be pretty green. People talk about it having ‘green edges’. The further out they go, the more scope there is in the consultation -but they’ll know in advance roughly where they want to end up and the consultation could be genuinely useful for them in testing it all to destruction a la NHS. I predict the net result will still be radical though.

  3. Mark – thought provoking post.

    You’re right to assume that the Government wants a white paper that stands the test of time – like a Robbins or a Dearing – as opposed to the last Government’s ‘Higher Ambitions’ paper.

    What I’m unsure about however is your definition of radical. What would need to be included for you to consider the paper radical?

    In addition, there are (off the top of my head) a couple of critical issues that need to be considered.

    1) Ideological commitment to autonomy

    There is a major cleavage between the desire to reform the sector and the deeply engrained belief that universities are at their best when they are free from Government intervention and micro-management. This causes no end of trouble with regards to policy. For example, Willetts wants to improve the quality of teaching in HE and ensure it receives near-comparable parity with research in terms of academic careers. Will the supply-side reforms nudge universities in that direction? What if they have little effect, or universities change at a pace that’s deemed too slow?

    Conservatives’ commitment to autonomy may mean that the white paper is constrained. Or it may mean that the white paper is incrementally implemented over a period of five years, or even two parliaments.

    2) U-turn

    Small point, but I’m not sure that the Government can be seen to perform another u-turn. Whilst the academic community is ‘noisy’, higher education, unlike the NHS, isn’t an issue that’s going to affect the outcome of the next General Election (bar a few university towns). Does this mean that the paper will be constrained from the outset? Or will this make radical reform more likely as the paper could be implemented in full?

    Unhelpfully I don’t have the answers to the questions I’ve posed (who does?). But I imagine they are some of the considerations the Government will be making.

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