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October 17, 2005

The Conservatives and the Universities: why Conservative opposition to univerisity tuition fees is wrong

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Conservative Party's current policy towards higher education - and especially its opposition to tuition fees - is popular with the electorate. However it is wrong, argues Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter. A truly Conservative higher education policy, argues Jeremy Black, would call for independence for universities, with each university being able to set its own fees. If such a policy were properly presented it could even be popular with the electorate.

Once upon a time it was all alright. The appropriate number of students went to university, they were funded generously by the state (fees were paid and they received maintenance grants) because there were not too many students, the right sort of places were universities, and polytechnics took care of the need for vocationalism. Furthermore, admissions worked fairly and, as there were not too many students, they were taught in small groups (i.e. well) and were also taught the right subjects.

Like most pre-lapsarian accounts, this is a seductive one. It is not, indeed, the only one in British higher education. There is an equivalent one, potent among a declining number of academics, that looks back to a golden age before performance indicators, the end of tenure, managerialism, getting older, in which lecturers were properly able to focus on their jobs.

The latter account has no attractions for Conservatives, but the first is one that is particularly potent. That account captures the sense of disquiet, even discontent, about the present situation, and links it to a better past. Such a view also has the attraction that there has been considerable unhappiness about the rising cost of university education, particularly increases in fees. Indeed, one senior Tory MP told me that opposition to tuition fees was one of the few policies that proved attractive on the canvassing door-step.

More of the same might therefore be an obvious policy. In electoral terms, it prevents the Party from being outflanked by the Liberals, who have made much of their opposition to the fees. Furthermore, it offers a way to appeal both to a large youth constituency, for which otherwise the Conservatives have little distinctive to suggest, and to their parents and grand-parents, constituencies that are traditional Conservative ones. Uncertainty about the Party's appeal to women makes this particularly valuable.

This is not all. Disquiet about higher education focuses on a number of spheres, not simply funding, but also numbers, admissions, courses, teaching, marking and employability. By waving an anti-university stick, the Conservatives can exploit this disquiet, and do so without having to suggest anything much beyond the prospect of improvability.

For a party in opposition, this is a very tempting prospectus. Indeed, it is a response to the growing prominence of higher education in national life, and a good instance of the attraction of running on the anti-government ticket. There are real problems with the sector that can be exploited, and New Labour's policies, not least social engineering, present opportunities for Conservative politicians.

That, roughly, was the situation when the Tories fought the 2005 election. If the Party sees itself as likely to remain perpetually in opposition, the platform still has much to commend it in electoral terms. But if the Conservative Party sees itself as a party for government, it should try to do better, and indeed can do so.

The central problem with the current policy is that is provides another instance of fighting over the control and contours of the welfare state. If the universities are under state control and heavily funded by government, then the Conservatives can not be surprised if Labour seek to use this to advance their agenda, as for example over admissions or fees or using student numbers as a way to massage the unemployment figures.

The radical option is clearly to move universities out of the state sector, and to go for direct funding by students, with the government providing support for whatever teaching or research it regards as unlikely otherwise to attract sufficient backing; rather than indirect funding by taxpayers mediated through mechanisms that are controlled by ministers and bureaucrats.

This was the policy recommended as a global panacea by Adrian Wooldridge in his first-rate survey of higher education published in The Economist on 10 September 2005. This impressive survey was concerned essentially with how best to ensure the most effective universities, but it lacked an engagement with the political context and, more generally, with the issue of agency. It is not simply that there will be losers as well as winners at the level of individuals and institutions if any changes are introduced, but also that higher education, like the provision of health, is impacted within social assumptions in which a sense of entitlement plays a major role. At the same time, the rapidly-changing nature of provision in recent decades is such that the contours of this sense of entitlement is not a constant.

Political vulnerability will arise if pressure for reform is top-down, an aspect of political programmes and government business. The Conservatives would be better advised to move the responsibility to individual universities, while, at the same time, giving them the freedom to make decisions. This freedom may well prove highly inconvenient to government if it leads to a cutback in the training of subject specialists judged essential, such as doctors, but that is not necessarily countered by the alternative of micro-management. Independence will also entail an abandonment of state assessment of research and teaching quality, but it is likely that universities will make a better job of this if they feel it necessary.

The problem that reformers will face is the claim that they are consigning the poor to a less attractive range of options. This is true, but is also the case with the existing situation in terms, for example, of the average distance that students are prepared to travel to university or the quality of accommodation they can afford once there. Breaking with the maintenance grant was the key development here, and changes in the fee structure are in fact less important for student who live away from home. One size does not fit all at present as some students, particularly mature students, live at home, while the cost of accommodation varies greatly across the country.

The politicians prefer to ignore these issues and, instead, to concentrate on the degree to which they can apparently control the situation. This is misleading. It ignores the issues of global provision and competition addressed by The Economist and, more seriously for most undergraduates, the consequences of the emphasis on living away from home. Allowing universities to set their own fees is the sensible response to the variety of providers and to contrasting student needs. It is a sensible policy for the Conservatives. Sensibly presented it will not be a liability, but the Conservatives need to think very carefully about the issue of presentation.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).

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One alternative not mentioned is the "industrial scholarship" - i.e. tax breaks for companies who provide subventions to students.

The wider issue is whether either the State or the market can be trusted with long-term manpower planning. I wish I could find some evidence - well, any evidence, really - that the answer is "yes" in either case.

It would also be interesting to know precisely what it is that is delivered by the three- (or four-)year full time degree course that can only be delivered in that way.

Since Prof. Black ducks the question of presentation (perhaps he's too busy counting his profits from the management buy-out and flotation of Exeter University) I will offer a modest suggestion.

The Government offers a range of "soft loan" packages, some softer than others, differentiated by subject (this could address the problem with medicine, for example) or even by personal characeristics, e.g. preferential rates for those whose parents didn't go to University. Of course, under no circumstances would these be available for Law degrees.

Posted by: Innocent Abroad at October 17, 2005 06:09 PM

Has David Cameron - as Tory shadow secretary of state for education - not abandoned the previous Tory education policy and embraced top-up fees?

Posted by: Jonathan at October 24, 2005 12:30 AM
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