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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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What’s wrong with politicians in HE?

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By Rob Cuthbert

The June general election disrupted normal business at Westminster in almost every sense: the summer silly season may be suspended altogether, despite the annual three-month holiday for Parliament. The unexpected election result had something to do with the mobilisation of the student and young persons’ vote by the Labour Party, probably connected to their promise to abolish tuition fees and even cancel all student debt. The storm brewing since the election was sparked into life by the intervention of Lord Adonis, self-styled architect of the fees policy and director of the No 10 Policy Unit under Tony Blair. It captured all the worst features of politicians in HE in one episode: selective attention to issues; pursuing personal interests in the guise of caring about the issue; selective memory; rewriting history; not taking advice from people who actually know how a policy might work; and – worst of all to academics – contempt for evidence.

Andrew Adonis, returning to comment on HE after some years away, wrote a scathing but completely misguided piece about fees for The Times on 28 June 2017. ‘Goodbye tuition fees. They were a sensible idea wrecked by David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s decision to treble them overnight, and by the greed and complacency of vice-chancellors who thought they were a licence to print money’. His motive was apparently to protect his ‘legacy’ as ‘the moving force behind Tony Blair’s decision in 2004 to introduce … top-up fees … The intention was that fees would vary between £1000 and £3000 depending on the cost and benefit of each course. But the VCs formed a cartel and almost universally charged £3000.’

Adonis and most other politicians in the Westminster bubble have conveniently forgotten that it was always obvious, well before the vote on £3000 fees back in 2004, that virtually all universities would be charging the maximum £3000, as a Guardian report from 13 January 2004 makes clear: ‘Today’s survey of 53 of the 89 university vice-chancellors in England, carried out by EducationGuardian.co.uk, reveals that, in practice, variability will be minimal while the fee ceiling remains at £3,000, though elite universities are already lobbying for that cap to be swiftly lifted.’ But Adonis is clearly a man who harbours grudges over the long term, predicting that fees would soon be abolished and ‘VCs need to start planning for real austerity. The flow of money from £9000 fees will soon dry up. They could set an example and halve their salaries.

Adonis had stamped his foot and ‘thcreamed and thcreamed until he made himthelf thick’, in the style of Violet-Elizabeth Bott. Despite knowledgeable HE commentators pointing out how wrong he was about almost everything, his ideas ‘gained traction’, as they say in the Westminster bubble. Pretty soon Damian Green, the Deputy Prime Minister, was having to backtrack from an ill-advised response in a wide-ranging interview when he suggested that the whole fees policy needed review.

Conservative commentator George Trefgarne on 26 June 2017 blogged for Reaction, asking ‘Why is nobody in the Conservative Party talking about the broken student loan system?’ Then on 5 July the Institute for Fiscal Studies put out their Briefing Note (BN211), Higher Education funding in England: past, present and options for the future, seized on by the media with front page headlines blaring that three-quarters of graduates will never repay their debt. Steve Jones (Manchester) blogged for WonkHE on 6 July 2017 ‘Are headline writers getting it wrong on fees?’. The answer was mostly yes, but his argument was much too sensible to ‘gain traction’ when Westminster was already in full-blown panic mode.

Mark Leach of WonkHE had offered a primer on 22 May 2017: ‘The Pros and Cons of Abolishing Tuition fees’ after Andrew McGettigan gave his own version on 12 May 2017, in the run-up to the general election, ‘The cost of abolishing tuition fees’. McGettigan got back on the case with his Critical Education blog on 5 July 2017, ‘IFS on tuition fees’, pointing out that the IFS arguments were sound, but inconvenient for Minister Jo Johnson, who had spent most of the previous few days arguing that the HE finance system was not broke and therefore he shouldn’t fix it. SRHE Vice-President Peter Scott wrote in The Guardian on 4 July 2017: ‘why are we not taking seriously a key message that came out of the campaign? Labour’s manifesto promise to abolish tuition fees in England, initially seen as off-the-wall, gained enormous traction. This is hardly surprising given the prospects faced by graduates – escalating debt, doubtful job prospects in a declining post-Brexit economy and decent homes out of reach.’ His piece was titled ‘The end of tuition fees is on the horizon – universities must get ready’.

Adonis wasn’t finished – indeed, he was hardly getting started. He wrote in The Guardian on 7 July 2017 under the headline ‘I put up tuition fees. It’s now clear they have to be scrapped’, saying ‘Debts of £50,000 are far more than I envisaged, and make the system unworkable’. Martin Harris (former director of the Office for Fair Access) weighed in, writing to The Guardian on 9 July 2017:

‘Andrew Adonis is right that the current fee regime cannot survive, but he understates the success of the £3k fee which he devised and which Charles Clarke introduced after the 2003 election … Adonis is unfair in attributing to vice-chancellors the decision to raise fees to £9k. This was a political diktat …  Ministers were clearly told how universities would behave when presented with a fee regime which would in effect label their courses first, second or third class by price. … Since then, a series of decisions by Conservative ministers have made matters worse, especially the abandonment of the categorical promise that tuition fee debt would never increase in real terms. The current regime certainly has to go. But we need to revisit something like the Adonis/Clarke scheme rather than totally abolishing fees. Abolition will inevitably lead to a cap on student numbers and thus to fewer poorer students entering universities.’

Nick Hillman of HEPI added his three penn’orth in a blog on 13 July 2017: ‘Lord Adonis now says the whole system of funding teaching in universities via tuition fees is wrong and should be junked altogether. More than that, he has taken to lashing out at Vice-Chancellors, called for an investigation of tuition fees by the Competition and Markets Authority and is now battling away with academics on how they spend the summer on Twitter.’ Hillman said Adonis was ‘intellectually incoherent … intellectually weak. … [and making] false linkages: ‘it is silly to draw a direct line between higher tuition fees and the current levels of remuneration.’ However Jo Johnson was ready to endorse part of the Adonis rant, saying, “There are legitimate concerns about the rate at which vice chancellor pay has been growing. I think it is hard for students at a time when they have concerns over value for money and want to see real evidence of value for money from their tuition fees”.

Undaunted, Adonis made multiple media appearances, no doubt delighted to be once again in the political spotlight and feeling that his political bandwagon was gathering speed. As John Elledge of CityMetric wrote for the New Statesman on 4 July 2017: ‘Maybe scrapping tuition fees would be regressive. Perhaps we should do it anyway’, arguing that ‘Supporters of fees may be right on the policy – but they’re way off on the politics.’ Adonis even attacked the Times Higher Education for allegedly not exposing the issue of VCs’ salaries, a ludicrous comment revealing his ignorance of years of evidence in THE to the contrary.

The evidence-based debate on the pros and cons of tuition fees continued, but in a different universe. The 11 May blog for WonkHE by Gavan Conlon of London Economics, a longstanding expert commentator in this territory, argued that abolishing fees is fundamentally regressive. Christopher Newfield (University of California at Santa Barbara) blogged for WonkHE on 15 May 2017 about why abolishing tuition fees is a good idea. It was a scholarly values-based argument which built on his recent book The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, October 2016). The common argument in the US is that if public funding goes down, tuition fees go up, but Jason Delisle of the American Enterprise Institute argued for the ‘Bennett hypothesis’ – former US Secretary for Education Bill Bennett said that tuition fees increase until they exhaust the availability of public funds for student support. The long-term trend in the US shows a strong correlation of declining public support with rising tuition, but Delisle argued, in a report released on 1 June 2017, that colleges’ natural explanation should not be taken for granted. Becky Supiano interviewed Delisle for the Chronicle of Higher Education on 1 June 2017.

WonkHE’s weekly briefing on 5 June noted ‘New research from Claire Callender and Geoff Mason … at the UCL Institute of Education … The paper argues that tuition fees debt deters poorer and ethnic minority students from applying to university … The findings challenge the argument that the recent (post-fee increase) growth in full-time HE participation by 18-year-olds from all social classes proves that fees are not a deterrent. UUK chief executive Nicola Dandridge has responded to the paper with a blog criticising the methodology of the report. Dandridge argues that the study’s conclusions do not follow from its survey results and that the survey implies “that student loans are just like other domestic forms of debt such as credit card loans. This is far from the truth”.’

This was conveniently close to the arguments that Minister Jo Johnson had been making, since Dandridge was then unveiled by Johnson as the first chief executive of the Office for Students. It was however somewhat removed from the view of a significant number of her own current employers: later surveys would reveal a third of VCs wished to see substantial change to the fees regime.  Andrew Adonis described Dandridge’s appointment as ‘producer capture’, which exercised OfS Chair Michael Barber enough to write to The Guardian on 10 July 2017 saying ‘Don’t dismiss the Office for Students’ – a clash between two former heads of Tony Blair’s No 10 Policy Unit. At least Barber, the author of ‘deliverology’, is showing early signs of realising the limitations of target-setting in his approach as OfS Chair. Adonis, on the other hand, is showing much of what seems to be wrong with politicians in HE. His memory of events and version of history is selective, his evidence is flawed, his arguments are intellectually weak and incoherent, he seems to be too concerned to ‘protect his legacy’, and he has struck an almost Trumpian note in attacking rather than listening to anyone who disagrees with him.

The fee abolitionists are an unlikely combination of more-means-worse elitism and leftist utopian economics, and as Jo Johnson continues to promote market solutions he remains onside with the for-profit providers scenting new opportunities. Abolishing loan-backed fees would be devastating for those private sector providers, and that alone makes abolition unlikely for the present government, even before we get to the economic cost. If Adonis gets his wish for reform, the messy politics might lead to closures of public sector institutions, with less diversity, fewer opportunities for disadvantaged students, new lowest-common-denominator for-profit providers offering courses with less gainful employment for graduates, continuing student debt, and growing dissatisfaction among disenfranchised would-be students. But you can be sure that when the next crisis arrives, the politicians will be blaming HE, the opposition, the media, or anyone – except themselves.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics rob.cuthbert@btinternet.com

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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