Contradictory Aims

Ross McKibbin · University 'Policy'

The difficulties of coalition government have probably manifested themselves first in university ‘policy’. The previous regime made funding proposals that could hardly be taken seriously but recent comments by the new universities minister, David Willetts, suggest someone equally at sea. The problem is that the coalition is committed to contradictory aims. It wants to encourage social mobility, give increased access to working-class students and more monetary assistance to those students (Lib Dem policy), and to rebalance universities towards teaching (a good thing) and the ‘student experience’ (a non-thing), away from the old obsession with research. But it also wants – above all – to cut spending. This is where the trouble starts.

The Lib Dems would like to abolish tuition fees in order to encourage access; the Conservatives (and the universities) want to increase them – irrespective of what Lord Browne’s committee recommends. It seems certain fees will go up, especially as the Lib Dems are to be allowed only to abstain on any vote to increase them. Given the weight the Lib Dems put on the abolition of fees both before and during the election this does not look good. Increased fees are not, however, to be spent on salaries. Willetts has made it clear that he thinks universities spend too much on them. They certainly spend too much on the salaries of principals and administrators, but they definitely don't on those of university teachers. An attempt to grind down salaries in the manner of the 1980s and 1990s will do nothing for the esprit de corps of the universities, while all too much is already spent on the ‘student experience’.

Willetts is also floating the idea of cut-price universities, while his boss, the business secretary, Vince Cable, has suggested that too many people are now going to universities. In fact, neither cut-price universities nor reducing the numbers are necessarily bad ideas. The Labour government never gave any convincing reason why 50 per cent of school leavers should go to university and showed little interest in what they did when they went there, while the colleges of further education are an ill-used resource. Furthermore, the English model of a university – something not near where you live – is undoubtedly expensive for everyone, student and government. Thus turning the CFEs into local universities has something to be said for it – especially as their courses are often economically more useful than many university degrees. Inevitably, however, this is easier said than done since the CFEs are at present seriously underfunded. In other words, to have cut-price universities we need to spend more money.

How does the commitment to increase access to universities square with the view that there are already too many students? While the universities, anomalously and wrongly, are still run from the department of business, there is little likelihood of coherent policy. If they are one of the country’s money-making concerns, as both this government and its predecessor seem to believe, then lots of money has to be spent on them and student visas made easy to acquire. But if business also demands efficiency and a tight ship then much less must be spent on them. And, of course, if they are an arm in the war on terror (which was the Labour government’s view) then student visas must be made more difficult to acquire – as they have been. Nothing suggests the new government has sorted any of this out.