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Why there may never be an HE white paper [updated 4/4]

Last year, we were promised a white paper to bring together the Government’s vision for higher education post-Browne review and after the debate about fees had run its course. As we enter British Summer Time, it seems a good time to consider the status of this elusive document, originally scheduled for some time in ‘winter’. A few weeks ago we were told that its publication had been put back until the summer, to wait and see to how Universities responded to new OFFA guidance and how they set their fees. Since then, there has been mounting panic by the Government whose HE funding settlement with the Treasury depended on the average fee to be set at £7,500. As has been well documented elsewhere, the average is likely to be closer to £8,500 – which would see the Exchequer lose out considerably as they are forced to lend much more money than planned.
This article is more than 11 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

Last year, we were promised a white paper to bring together the Government’s vision for higher education post-Browne review and after the debate about fees had run its course. As we enter British Summer Time, it seems a good time to consider the status of this elusive document, originally scheduled for some time in ‘winter’. A few weeks ago we were told that its publication had been put back until the summer, to wait and see to how Universities responded to new OFFA guidance and how they set their fees. Since then, there has been mounting panic by the Government whose HE funding settlement with the Treasury depended on the average fee to be set at £7,500. As has been well documented elsewhere, the average is likely to be closer to £8,500 – which would see the Exchequer lose out considerably as they are forced to lend much more money than planned.

This issue has been particularly difficult for the Government because of the intense and complicated Coalition politics; and the sheer toxicity for the Lib Dems that everything HE-funding brings. Many are now speculating that we might never actually see a White Paper, and here’s why:

It’s about the politics, stupid.

Since the Coalition took power, Higher Education has been a minefield for the Government. The publication of the Browne report, the ensuing debate and the ultimate raising of the fees cap to 9k poured poison into the heart of the Lib Dems, thanks to their pre-election pledge not to raise fees. They were badly wounded by this episode, which damaged the whole Government with them. Ever since, we have seen a scramble to regain the initiative with an increasingly frustrated David Willetts and a decreasingly present Vince Cable. Cable’s credibility was then undermined even further by the Murdoch/Telegraph sting, and he has been all-but-benched ever since.

Looking outside of higher education policy, over the last year you can trace a Government of ministers reaching deep and burning bridges in the drive to ‘reform’ public services quickly and radically. But this strategy has bought little benefit for David Cameron who has been forced to fight a war on too many fronts. As a result of this, we are seeing the revival of the No. 10 Strategy Unit and a major expansion of political power around the Prime Minister. Most commentators expect these changes at the heart of Government to be a prelude to Blair-style centralisation of authority in Whitehall. The difference to the Blair years is that David Cameron’s Chancellor is very much a part of the inner-circle, which will make this newly resurgent central power all the more potent.

It will be harder in the future for Ministers to pursue agendas because they will have far more burning hoops to jump through at the centre before their work ever sees the light of day. Would Andrew Lansley’s widely-discredited health reforms ever passed a beefed up No.10, determined to regain the political initiative, and weary of ministerial over-reach? It’s easy to see how David Willetts could run in to such obstacles with an HE White Paper, after this issue has been nothing but a headache for the Government since last May.

We don’t need new legislation to achieve much of what the Government wants to do.

The original timetable for the white paper had penciled in a new HE Bill brought to Parliament some time at the beginning of 2012. However primary legislation affects only a small amount of the governance of higher education thanks to the historic settlement that has allowed a degree of autonomy for universities. Altering interest rates on student loans did indeed require primary legislation – so it was included in the Education Bill. The raising of the fees cap to 9k simply required a vote in Parliament, which took place last year.

Looking at everything David Willetts wants to do with the sector, you quickly realise that most of it does not require a new Bill, so why would the Government want to keep HE high on the political agenda with a white paper and drag it out all the way in to next year, when they can tinker here and there with policy shifts and new initiatives?

For example, Willetts is passionate about improving information about higher education. And we’ve already seen the Key Information Set move towards delivery and all of Willetts’ other ideas in this area can be achieved in similar ways. There are a great many policy initiatives that he can give to HEFCE to consult on, deliver and take the ire of the sector. In many ways, that’s why HEFCE was set up in the first place.

The Government wants to see more private providers enter the HE market. But they have already arrived and integrated in to the fabric of the sector without a big legislative push. QAA has many private provider subscribers and as THE reported this week, there are already many students studying in them with access to student support. Last year, BPP was granted permission to change its trading name to BPP University College under the Companies Act that designates responsibility to BIS for control over the use of ‘university’ title. All at the stroke of a pen. And most of the other mooted supply-side reforms can happen in similar ways.

The idea of a Higher Education Council was a non-starter from the moment Lord Browne proposed it. The Government does not want to make a wholesale re-organisation of the sector agencies. More scores against the need for a white paper an ensuing legislation.

There are a few small issues that might need the legislative touch – this issue of ‘university’ status, degree awarding powers and the requirements that come with them are governed by previous legislation. There are ways round them as we saw with Willett’s obscure BPP title shift, but its likely that there will have to be a few minor changes to allow for Pearson et al to truly enter the market, as Willetts wishes them to do. But none of this needs a whole new Bill and the political difficulty that comes with it. The changes to interest rates on loans were a moderately big change, yet no one strongly objected to it being added as a bullet point to an existing DfE Bill.

So now what? And a bit of free advice for Mr Willetts.

We are in a period of uncertainty, and have been for so long that ‘uncertainty’ has become a virtual cliché in HE policy circles. And we know that the promise of a White Paper was more about clarifying positions than it was the start of a major new drive into HE reform. But the white paper was always going to be short on detail and the start of long process of consultation in which it’s likely that the sector would have continued to complain about uncertainty, ad nauseam.

So Mr Willetts, publish your vision for the HE sector. Make the changes you want that are already well within your power to. Direct HEFCE to do much of the heavy lifting. But let’s not have another fruitless 12 months of vague debate about the future. This strategy hasn’t served you very well so far and a white paper will only be a ball and chain around your neck until its ready to enter Parliament as a Bill. At which point, the grueling legislative process will likely make you nostalgic for these confusing, uncertain days.

Update – Monday 4th April: And  it’s still about the politics.

Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms are in even more trouble then we assumed before. Policy Exchange has released a report looking at the realities of the Lansley plans and has urged caution. At the weekend it was announced that the Bill would be ‘paused’ so that the Government could come to some sort of internal agreement about the way forward, before any real attempt to sell the plans are made. There is apparently a lot of horse-trading going on between the Tories and Lib Dems as the junior members of the Coalition have a litany of complaints about Lansley ‘s plan.

As this issue unravels further, we are given a fascinating insight into the pitfalls of Coalition-led governing. We are also witnessing the beginning of the end of this extraordinary period in which the Prime Minister has given his Ministers far far too much slack. As highlighted above, this will have consequences for every Department and every policy brief.

There is also a Cabinet reshuffle on the cards – most expect it to follow the May election/referendum. There are plenty of rumours of a David Laws return and a dignified retirement for the embattled Vince Cable. There are other rumours floating around that as part of this chopping and changing, the HE brief could be moved sideways in to DfE and an expanded empire for Michael Gove. It’s likely that David Willetts would follow the brief down the road.

William Cullnerne Brown wrote this morning about the Lib Dem’s Plan B. A reshuffle and machinery of government change could therefore be aptly described as Plan C. In this event, we can expect a deeper re-think about the Government’s direction for HE which might necessitate a far more radical white paper or indeed simply kill it dead. Either way, do not underestimate the importance of May and the changes that the local elections, referendum, reshuffle and renewed Coalition Agreement, might bring.

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