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Willetts wakes up … shock!

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Willetts wakes up … shock!

The Coalition proposals for changes to the system of funding for higher education have been unravelling for some time. The Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts first introduced the Browne Review Report with sideswipes at previous ministers who, in his view, had watered down good proposals and made them unworkable. Within a short time, the Government was announcing both the virtues of the market and a soft-cap at £6000 with some universities allowed to charge £9000 provided they agreed plans to improve access with OFFA.  

In December, the Higher Education Policy Institute demonstrated that most universities would seek to charge £9000. It was also clear that no real savings would be made – only ‘accounting’, or ‘book’ savings – and the new system of student support is unsustainable if the majority of universities charge £9000 (again something also argued by HEPI back in December). Mr Willetts made no response, perhaps believing that this was something that his Liberal Democrat colleagues should answer.

Now he is announcing that, if universities don’t peg their fees back to £6000, he will have to make cuts elsewhere. But what further cuts are there to make, given that he has withdrawn all funding from non-STEM subjects? Perhaps the remaining allocation to STEM subjects will be cut, or perhaps he will reduce QR funding. However, given that Mr Willetts is happy for some universities to charge £9000 – the Russell Group believes it should be them – his problem is that this will harm Russell Group universities most.

Mr Willetts calls upon universities, generally, to act to curtail fees and accept a very large cut in their income, but he seems not to have understood that his market reforms are inconsistent with such collective action. His speech was mirrored in another, reported in the Times Higher, by University of Birmingham Vice-Chancellor and member of the Browne Review, Professor David Eastwood.

Professor Eastwood expressed his view that other Vice-Chancellors were naïve in their early opposition to the Browne Review plans for differential fees without a cap. He feels that the outcome of this opposition is that average fees across the sector will be higher than they otherwise would have been (at the same time that he regrets that his own university will not be allowed to charge in excess of £9000 as the Browne Review had intended). Why would other Vice-Chancellors prefer lower fees at the cost of a serious loss of income in order to enable some universities to be able to charge significantly more?

It is Mr Willetts and Professor Eastwood who are naïve in thinking that there will now be solidarity in the sector to get them out of their bind. It was Professor Eastwood who planned increased income for his own university and cuts for everyone else and is asking for help from those he would have left behind now that his lifeboat has sprung a massive leak.

But why has Mr Willetts woken up now? Has the sight of Caroline Spelman, undermined by an ill-thought-out policy of forest privatisation that antagonised many and made few savings, brought him to the realisation that his own predicament is much the same? He is now as much in the firing line as his Liberal Democrat colleagues. Famously, he has two brains, but he can’t remain in two minds for much longer.

  1. ‘Two Brains’ Willets speak with forked tongue!
    Patrick Ainley
    co-author of ‘Lost Generation? New strategies for youth and education’, London: Continuum 2010

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