Universities have for years been lobbying for a new source of income via radical increases in student fees. Last year, the Labour government with support from the Conservatives set up a review of the issue chaired by Lord Browne. Recommendations from the former chief executive of BP are due later this year. At last, it seemed, the door was opening for a big win for the universities. But how do things stand after the election?
Fundamentally, the Conservatives and Labour agree that expansion of student numbers would be a good thing but that paying for it is a puzzle. Raising student fees might be the answer, but would be deeply problematic for any government. It can only ever be an attempt to drive a train freighted with middle class dynamite through hostile media territory. Last year, David Willetts - then the shadow but now the minister in charge of the universities and responsible for implementing any changes to the fees regime - was savaged in a Daily Mail editorial for comments that entertained a rise in fees. Such savagery is why the issue was hit into the long grass of the Browne review until after the election. But for this coalition government the problems are specially acute.
First, the review comes at a time of a squeeze on public spending. An increase in fees means an increase in student loans, which means an increase in lending by the government’s Student Loans Company. In other words, higher student fees do not reduce state spending on universities; for the first decades, they increase it - which must be unacceptable to a Treasury today fixed on deficit reduction.
Second, radical reform is a major political undertaking. Last time round, Howard Newby, the HEFCE chief executive, practically camped at Number 10 as Tony Blair nursed the legislation through. But the coalition incorporates two sets of policy priorities and already has a huge programme of major reform to push through in the next year or two, amidst the political nightmare of deeper-than-Thatcher cuts. It needs primary legislation increasing student fees like a hole in the head.
Third, within the coalition agreement the Lib Dems have been allowed to maintain their purity on fees with an abstention on any votes. That leaves the Conservatives with 306 votes against 282 for the other parties (Labour 258), after allowing for the Speaker and Sinn Fein absentees. Suddenly, 20 backbench rebels allied with cynical Labour opposition could give Cameron a bloody nose, damaging the impression of a strong and stable government that the coalition is so keen to nurture. With the Daily Mail roaring them on, and the vote already agreed not to be one of confidence, the issue could easily become a focus for the discontent brewing among right-wing Conservative MPs.
Fourth, for similar reasons, even with the abstention deal, Nick Clegg will not welcome a rise in fees. His predecessor Ming Campbell has already promised to break the whip and vote against. And the (Labour) NUS president gave a taste of what is to come when he tweeted recently, “Every Lib Dem in a university seat will be toast if they break their pledge to students and abstain on tuition fees.”
Fifth, the responsible Cabinet minister also feels it is a matter of principle. Vince Cable (Willetts’ boss, at least nominally) may feel unable to abstain, from both vote and debate.
Sixth, the universities continue to misplay their hand. What can you do with vice-chancellors who tell you openly that they will argue for small changes in public, and big changes in private?
Seventh, fees are a minefield for Willetts, a man who is too intellectually honest for his own career. He lost his place in the Shadow Cabinet by being too honest about grammar schools. On fees, his two brains probably recognise the strength of the case for the complete removal of the cap. But if he speaks out on that - and his run in with the Daily Mail shows how hard he will find it not to - he might as well give up now on ever reaching the Cabinet proper.
These factors explain why, despite the Conservatives agreeing to the Browne review in opposition, the coalition’s language on the Browne review has been so cool. The Programme for Government simply says, “We will await Lord Browne’s final report into higher education funding, and will judge its proposals against the need to: increase social mobility; take into account the impact on student debt; ensure a properly funded university sector; improve the quality of teaching; advance scholarship; and attract a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
The conclusion must be that if there were ever any prospect of a radical increase in student fees, the election result and the emergence of the coalition has killed it. Instead, a small rise in the level of the cap can probably be pushed through Parliament without primary legislation, minimising (though not eliminating) the scope for a damaging defeat.
For the research base, this will be grim news. Cuts are coming, and fees are not coming to the rescue. In other words, for researchers and universities, the election has already proved a major disaster.
This article is an edited extract from a special report assessing the impact of the election on research and universities. Further extracts will appear in Research Fortnight on 2 June, and the full assessment is contained in the larger Research report
[Updated 16 July 2010]