Incompetence that is costing young people dearly

In last weeks’s Comment is Free, David Willetts’ claim that the tuition fee rise was actually a good deal for students because of the ‘hidden discounts’ of bursaries and fee waivers was a poor attempt at distracting critics from the ultimate failure of the policy.

Willetts’ vision, which he reiterates in the article, was a market in tuition fees which would empower students to choose a university according to the quality of the education it provides– ensuring that according to the laws of supply and demand, institutions would be forced to improve their quality in order to charge more in fees.

But as nearly three quarters of the Universities that have declared their fees opt for the highest rate, it’s clear that this policy has completely failed. Demand for university places remain much higher than supply (over 200,000 applicants missed out on a university place last year) so the majority of Universities will not be forced to bend to the will of students, but rather will use extra fee income to replace the huge cut in the teaching grant that Willetts boasts about.

What is most outrageous though is the way in which Willetts et al have sought to blame others for their own mistakes. In February he accused universities of ‘rushing to £9,000 without thinking about the impact on students’while his colleague Vince Cable labelled the sector ‘irrational’ for collectively going to the top rate.

However, put simply the failure of this policy is not down to Universities’ greed but ministerial incompetence and it will be the poorest university students who will end up suffering the most.

A average fee level across the sector much higher than the government predicted will leave a gaping hole in budget of the department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) who fit the bill for student loans, a hole which Cable has threatened to fill by cutting University places.

The reason for this mess? Ministers mistakenly thought that the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) had the powers to impose particular fee levels on institutions.

This inexcusable mistake may mean that the chance of a place at University is snatched away for thousands of young people. With funding concentrated at the most prestigious Universities with the most socially advantaged intake, it will not be the children of middle England that lose out – but rather students at institutions like London Met which two weeks ago cut two thirds of its courses.

The effect of a cut in student places would be absolutely disastrous at a time of extremely high youth unemployment, helping to create a generation who will miss out on the opportunities that should be available them and causing further damage to social mobility.

But Willets claims Universities will ‘remain well funded’, so perhaps this is his policy’s saving graces?

In reality most Universities have to charge more than £7000 just to break even after an 80% cut to the teaching grant. Universities are facing a cut of up to 12% this year with the newer institutions that concentrate most on teaching and have the most number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds losing out the most.  So, contrary to Willetts simplistic claim that he has put the sector on firm foundations, he has in fact instigated a survival of the fittest environment where the institutions that fit best with two of his supposed priorities – widening access and teaching – will be faced with the deepest cuts.

The injustice of thousands of young people suffering due to the incompetence of David ‘two brains’ Willetts would be shocking if we hadn’t already seen a raft of policies that will do great damage to young people’s life chances. At the same time as pontificating about social mobility the Coalition have scraped EMA and the future jobs fund, and dismantled Aim higher – all schemes that attempted to help young people overcome the obstacles that Cameron and Clegg never had to face.

Perhaps it’s time David Willetts took responsibility for this failure, instead of letting young people feel the pain.


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