What the off-quota fiasco has told us about the HE white paper
This week's off-quota fiasco gives us a pretty good picture of the state the government is in over tutition fees.
Having returned from the enforced break in policymaking during the run up to the May elections, David Willetts and Vince Cable are trying to complete the drafting of the long-promised white paper on higher education. Mid-June is the date pencilled in.
This in turn would have allowed the government to cut other spending to the universities without throwing the whole system into crisis. Willetts and Cable would have been spared the need to cut student numbers or spending on science.
The good news is that we can see that universities and the Department of Business Innovation and Skills have not run out of ingenuity. The bad news is that David Cameron has killed off the off-quota option.
Ed Miliband cited this on Wednesday as an example of the Prime Minister "dumping" on his colleagues. What is certainly true is that Cameron's instant political decree has left Willetts and Cable to scratch around for some other way to raise the missing cash.
That makes me worry. Bahram Bekhradnia, the head of the Higher Education Policy Institute, was pretty dismissive of the off-quota scheme at the BIS select committee on Tuesday. Are the options BIS has got left in the locker are even ropier? The gossip this morning is that the core-margin option has been dropped.
Benedict Brogan in the Telegraph has set out two further options BIS is considering:
"The idea, as I initially heard it, was to consider easing the cap on admissions at the upper level by allowing the top establishments charging the full £9000 to let in more top students – those scoring 2 As and B minimum – than they currently are allowed to. And I’m told another change being contemplated would lift the admissions cap on those universities serving the cheaper end of the market. New institutions [offering] inexpensive two year degrees, for example, would be free to allow as many students in as they could cope with."
Those two options would move the system in the direction ministers want it to go, both at the top and at the bottom. But - deep breath Conservatives - they would be a case of regulation delivering a better public service, not the market. And are they viable?
Meanwhile, there's no signal yet from ministers as to the fundamental direction they are going to take in tackling the £9k clustering - is it to be more market faster, or the return of nanny's firm hand of regulation?
And Willetts and Cable have got to come up with something that not only raises money but is socially progressive (to please Lib Dems) and market oriented (to please Conservatives).
And, now that Willetts has reminded Conservatives of his past political blunders, we can be sure that a jumpy Number 10 will want to crawl all over the white paper before allowing it to be published.
And the really big risk hanging over this great revolution, that potential students will turn away from uni now because it is too expensive seems to be becoming more likely by the day. For the media, it is now part of the basic narrative - and the more the papers say it is true, the more likely it is to become true.
The upshot, it seems to me, is that as of today there probably is no plan. And there can't be any realistic date for the white paper.
The agony goes on.
Revised at 9am